Keys to Successful Aging
People with spinal cord injuries (SCIs) are living longer. As a result, they may need to find ways to promote and maintain their health throughout their lives. For people with an SCI, successful aging involves taking care of physical, emotional, and social health; maintaining as much independence as possible; and being open to changing how to do things when old strategies don’t work. People who engage in self-care and in their community, maintain a healthy lifestyle, have a positive outlook, and visit their doctors or SCI specialists regularly are more likely to age successfully.
To help you age successfully with SCI, take the following steps:
- Schedule regular health check-ups with your doctor.
- Learn how to spot important changes to your health, fitness level, and well-being.
- Use assistive devices when you need them to help with everyday tasks. The best assistive device for you may change over time, so it is OK to change how you do things. For example, you may need to switch to a power wheelchair or use a special bed, cushion, or braces.
- Try to keep your level of independence, but get help when you need it. For example, make decisions and manage issues related to your health and care. This may include hiring, training, and replacing helpers.
- Accessible housing becomes more necessary as you age. If necessary, and when you can, find housing that is more accessible.
- Find new resources that support you in your efforts to age successfully. Your health care and community networks can keep you informed and help you be proactive about getting new resources.
- Create and follow a self-care routine. Eat healthy and exercise. This will reduce the chance for new or worsening health problems.
- Find and pursue activities that bring joy and meaning to your life.
- Keep your mind active. Explore new interests and learn new things.
- Stay connected to the people in your family, community, and social groups.
Both research and people living with SCI have found that having a network of friends or people with shared interests is important for healthy aging. It may also improve your quality of life and help you maintain your independence. Social networks can help you have a positive outlook. For example, they may help you
- Create and strengthen your connection with others
- Take part in regular physical activity
- Take part in activities and hobbies that you enjoy
- Keep your mind active and learn new things
- Have different or more pleasant experiences than you might have alone
Why Is Aging an Important Issue for People With SCI?
The human body changes with age. Activities that were once easy when you were young may become harder. As you age, you may have health problems that you didn’t have before, such as “chronic” health problems. Chronic health problems are those that last for six months or more, need ongoing medical care, and may limit your ability to independently do activities of daily living. Some chronic conditions that people with SCI may develop are common with aging, such as arthritis. Other conditions that may develop are related to the SCI itself, such as spasticity and pressure injuries (sores or wounds); these are known as “secondary health conditions.”
New health problems may:
- Happen more often as you age.
- Stem from complications from SCI or its treatment.
- Stem from over-, under-, or misusing a body system. For example, you may have shoulder pain from using a manual wheelchair or from your transfer technique.
- Stem from lifestyle behaviors or factors in your environment. For example, you may have limited transportation options or few chances to take part in healthy recreational activities.
We have learned a lot about aging with SCI from research in the last 20 years:
- Aging is more likely to affect certain systems of the body. These include the musculoskeletal (muscles and bones), endocrine (glands), and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) systems. Changes in these systems may occur earlier in the aging process for those with SCI compared with those without SCI.
- People with SCI are more likely than the general population to have chronic pain, bone density loss, pressure injuries, and kidney and bladder stones.
The following may affect your health as you age with SCI:
- The level and severity of your SCI.
- Your age at injury.
- Your genetics and family health history.
- Lifestyle behaviors. These include your activity level, smoking or alcohol use, and diet.
- Your use of community services and social supports.
- The presence of other conditions that may affect your overall health.
A new symptom or a change in a condition may be a part of “normal” aging. But it could also be a sign of a problem. Talking to your doctor about your symptoms can help you figure out if the symptom or change is a sign of a problem. The table that follows lists some common body changes that come with normal aging and aging with an SCI. It also includes ideas to reduce secondary health conditions and help you age well.
|Body System||Issues you may experience||What can you do?|
|Muscles and bones||
|Kidneys and bladder||
|Gastrointestinal (digestive) system||
|Spinal cord and nerves||
|Heart and blood vessels||
|Mental abilities and emotions||
For more information on how to age well with an SCI, refer to the other SCI factsheets from the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center (https://msktc.org/sci/factsheets).
Health Maintenance and Aging With SCI
The following table lists recommendations for general health maintenance and health maintenance with SCI. These recommendations may vary by age, ethnicity, family history, and other factors.
|General health maintenance||Health maintenance with SCI|
|Things to do every 1–2 years:
||Things to do every 1–2 years:
|Things to do every 2–3 years:
||Things to do with your SCI specialist or team each year during the first 3–5 years after injury:
|Things to do every 5 years:
||Things to do at least every 5 years with your SCI specialist or team:
|Things to do every 10 years
||Things to do every 10 years:
|Things to do one time
||Things to do one time
- As you age with SCI, activities that were once easy may become harder and you may have health problems that you didn’t have before.
- Successful aging with SCI involves being proactive (taking time to care for your physical, emotional, and social health).
- Successful aging also involves being flexible (being open to changing how you do things when old strategies don’t work well).
- You are more likely to age well if you have a positive outlook, engage in self-care and in your community, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and visit your doctors or SCI specialists regularly.
- Exercise after Spinal Cord Injury | MSKTC. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://msktc.org/sci/factsheets/exercise-after-spinal-cord-injury
- Safe Transfer Technique | MSKTC. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://msktc.org/sci/factsheets/safetransfer-technique
- Skincare and Pressure Sores in Spinal Cord Injury | MSKTC. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://msktc.org/sci/factsheets/skincare-and-pressure-sores-spinal-cord-injury
- How to Do Pressure Reliefs (Weight Shifts) | MSKTC. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://msktc.org/sci/factsheets/how-dopressure-reliefs-weight-shifts
- Recommended Vaccines for Adults | CDC. Published May 12, 2023. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/adults/rec-vac/index.html
- ACS Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/breastcancer/screening-tests-and-early-detection/american-cancer-society-recommendations-for-the-early-detection-of-breastcancer.htm
- Colorectal Cancer Guideline | How Often to Have Screening Tests. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/colon-rectal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/acs-recommendations.html
Aging With a Spinal Cord Injury was originally developed and revised by the SCI Aging Special Interest Group of the SCI Model Systems in collaboration with the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center and investigators from the University of Washington Healthy Aging Rehabilitation and Research Training Center.
Source: The content in this factsheet is based on research and/or professional consensus. This content has been reviewed and approved by experts from the Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems (SCIMS) centers, funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).
Disclaimer: This information is not meant to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should consult your health care provider about specific medical concerns or treatment. The contents of this factsheet were developed under a grant (number 90DP0082) from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). It was updated under a NIDILRR grant (number 90DPKT0009). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this factsheet do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, or HHS and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.
Recommended citation: Authors. (2023). Aging with a spinal cord injury. Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center (MSKTC). https://msktc.org/sci/factsheets/aging-with-spinal-cord-injury.
Copyright © 2023 Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center (MSKTC). May be reproduced and distributed freely with appropriate attribution. Prior permission must be obtained for inclusion in fee-based materials.