“Sit up straight!” This command is reminiscent of school teachers who link poor posture to poor etiquette. But proper posture is about far more than etiquette; it’s about avoiding pain and spinal instability throughout your life. According to new research, it’s also about maintaining independence in advanced age.
Posture is said to be correct when the natural curvatures of the spine – inward at the lumbar segment, outward at the thoracic (middle) segment and inward again at the cervical (neck) segment – are preserved. Here’s a neat little trick: Imagine there’s a string in the center of the top of your head that runs through to the base of your spine, then pull the string straight up. This is a helpful technique used by some dancers and yoga practitioners to check their posture.
Poor Posture and Your Spine
When the curvatures of the spine are distorted by poor posture, a number of things occur: the spinal discs experience uneven compression, a common herniated disc cause; the angles of the facet joints change, leading to potential early wear (osteoarthritis); muscles and ligaments are either overstretched or shortened, leaving them weak, tight and susceptible to strain and sprain.
Posture and Independence
Japanese researchers recently used advance technological devices to measure the angles of inclination in the spines of people aged 65 and older; they then sought to test whether or not the measurements factored into loss of independence later on. The inclination angle tells how far in front of the base of the spine the thoracic spine pitches forward. Participants with the greatest incline angle were found to be almost 3.5 times more likely to require assistance with everyday activities 4.5 years after the study’s beginning than those with the least inclination.
A forward-leaning posture is perpetuated by kyphosis, or the exaggerated rounding out of the thoracic spinal segment accompanied by slumped shoulder, a hollowed out chest and forward head. Kyphosis can be cause by a genetic abnormality, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis in old age. But it is also perpetuated by poor posture, and is likely to become a more common problem for the current generation as its constituents age. The use of mobile devices and laptops encourages kyphotic posture; we tend to thrust our heads forward toward screens, causing our shoulders to slump and upper backs to curve. Based on the results of the above study, a failure on behalf of the current generation to take posture more seriously could lead to higher nursing home enrollment in the not-so-far future.
When someone tells you to sit up straight, you’d be wise to listen. Doing so may provide you the best chance of living an independent life as you grow older with less back pain and disability.