Older woman in a wheelchair exiting van

What Do You Need to Know and Do?

Aging affects everyone. It is just another step along the path of life. But a spinal cord injury (SCI) can speed up the aging process, and other health problems can become more common with age. This factsheet can help you manage your health and SCI as you get older and will explain the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle after a SCI, including how to:

  • Learn about the issues people with SCI may experience as they age and common health conditions associated with the injury (“secondary” health conditions).
  • Follow a self-care routine to reduce health problems.
  • Decide what will help you enjoy a good quality of life and seek help when needed.
  • Become aware of factors in the environment and how to overcome barriers.
  • Work with your doctor and health care providers to spot potential problems.
  • Get regular health check-ups from your doctor and keep learning from research.

Why Is Aging an Important Issue for People With SCI?

Our body slows down as we age. Many things that were easy become harder with age. This is true for everyone, including people with SCI. People with SCI are living longer because of better health care. As you age, you may have health problems that you never had when you were younger. “Chronic” health problems are ones that last six months or more and require ongoing medical care. They may limit activities of daily life. They may result from common age-related problems, such as arthritis, which affects many middle-aged and older adults. Chronic conditions may be related to SCI. When chronic conditions are related to SCI, they are called “secondary health conditions.” New health problems may:

  • Happen more often in people who are aging with physical disabilities;
  • Result from complications from SCI or its treatments;
  • Come from over-, under-, or misusing a body system, such as shoulder pain from pushing a wheelchair; and
  • Result from lifestyle behaviors and factors in the environment, such as limited transportation options or fewer opportunities to be involved in healthy recreational activities.

We have learned much from research in the past 20 years:

  1. People with SCI show signs of aging earlier than those without SCI. Several organ systems in people with SCI may not work as well as those of same-aged people without SCI. Earlier aging is more likely to affect the musculoskeletal (muscles and bones), endocrine (glands), and cardiovascular (heart) systems in people with SCI.
  2. People with SCI are more likely than the general population to experience chronic pain, bone loss, pressure injury (pressure sores), and kidney and bladder stones.

Body Changes From Aging

Some body systems lose function with age. The degree of loss varies for each person. How a person ages after SCI is based on several factors, such as:

  • Level and severity of injury,
  • Age at injury,
  • Family health history,
  • Lifestyle behaviors (for example, activity levels, smoking or alcohol use, and diet), and
  • Access to community services and social supports.

A symptom or change in a condition may be “normal” aging or the sign of a problem. Discussing your symptoms with your doctor can help you figure this out. The following table describes body changes that come with normal aging and aging with SCI. It also provides ideas to reduce secondary health conditions and help you age well.

Feelings and Emotions

People usually live fulfilling and pleasurable lives without experiencing major emotional problems as they age. In fact, most older adults, with and without SCI, are resilient and adjust well to changes in their physical abilities. They also note improved relationships with loved ones, increased appreciation for life, and changes in priorities.

Your doctor plays an important role in your life as you age with SCI. Visit your doctor regularly to get physical check-ups. Talk to your
doctor about your emotions and physical independence. High levels of anxiety, depression, and stress are not a normal part of aging. Talk with your doctor or a counselor if you’re frequently worrying, losing interest or pleasure, or feeling “blue” most of the day.

Keys to Successful Aging

Everyone ages; it is a natural part of all life. The choices you make as you age with SCI are just as important as earlier life events, such as participating in initial rehabilitation, returning to work, developing relationships, and participating in life’s activities. To help handle changes as you age, keep a positive outlook and visit your doctor regularly.

Aging successfully with SCI means maintaining your physical health and independence as much as possible. It also means adapting to
new limitations, staying emotionally healthy, and participating in activities that are important and meaningful to you.
To age successfully with SCI:

  • Don’t be afraid to change the way you do some activities, if needed, for example, having a different diet;
  • Use adaptive equipment appropriately—equipment to help you with everyday tasks. Examples include wheelchairs, special beds,
  • cushions, and braces;
  • Seek help from others as needed but keep a steady level of independence. Even as you age with SCI, independence of mind is
  • still realistic. You can continue to make decisions and direct health- and care-related issues, such as hiring, training, and firing
  • helpers;
  • If possible, find more accessible housing; and
  • Take part in social activities that you value.

To keep a positive outlook:

  • Connect with others;
  • Engage in regular physical activity;
  • Participate in enjoyable activities;
  • Learn something new; and
  • Volunteer or seek services and supports provided by community-based organizations, such as independent living centers, aging and disability resource centers, and faith-based organizations.

Maintaining your physical health is another way to age successfully. Your doctor plays a key role in this process. Be sure to get regular health check-ups from your doctor. Work with your doctor and counselor to find and treat potential medical conditions and problems. Keep learning from research. Follow a health plan as you age. See the Medical Care Guidelines that follow. Discuss these guidelines with your doctor.


Things to Know About Aging and Spinal Cord Injury was developed 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 health information content in this fact sheet is based on research evidence and/or professional consensus and has been reviewed and approved by an editorial team of experts from the Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems.

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 fact sheet were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90DP0082). 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, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

Copyright © 2018 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.