Studies show people get more benefits from exercise as they age
During a 75-minute fitness routine of stretching, pulling, kicking and more in his room in the Sherwood Oaks retirement community, retired electrical engineer Melvin Judkis sometimes naps without warning during a soothing, therapeutic lull.
He might be forgiven for that – he recently turned 98. Judkis is the oldest among dozens of clients around the region of Treesdale-based wellness coach Nick Majoris, who visits him twice weekly. The personal care resident is mostly in fine shape, feeling fit after 27 years of their work – and friendship – together.
“We got started so long ago that it just feels natural now to keep it up, and it makes me feel better,” Judkis said after spending a couple of minutes tugging on handles of a bungee cord gripped in the middle by Majoris, who is 75.
Judkis, whose room’s walls are decorated by bright paintings made by his late wife, Edna, and others, rebounded within a couple of days last year from pneumonia that his physicians had considered life-threatening. He uses a walker to traverse the corridors of the facility for up to a mile a day.
“Everybody wants the same thing – to live a little longer and keep out of the nursing home,” said Judkis, whose posture is bent from back arthritis but who has few health complaints.
Findings of two recent independent studies help explain and support the nonagenarian’s ability to continue taking care of most of his own needs, as well as his recovery from serious illness. Judkis was not a participant in either study, but hundreds of Pittsburghers were among thousands of seniors nationally whose healthy habits late in life point toward positive benefits that could last for many years.
One study, using data collected by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and three other sites over a quarter century, showed that older adults with healthy lifestyles – no smoking, good diet, suitable physical activity, etc. – not only live longer than their peers, but also have fewer years of disability before dying.
The second study, in which Pitt researchers assisted, found that people who started at least a moderate regimen of walking for exercise late in life rebounded from serious health conditions with a far shorter period of disability than did non-exercisers.
Such findings might seem only logical – yes, people with healthy behaviours end up with better health outcomes – but due to their broad size and duration, the studies provide some of the best evidence yet of the impact on someone 65 or 75 years old paying attention to exercise and other recommended behaviours.
“There’s been conflicting data on whether people are just living longer and we’re just prolonging the period of time they’re in poor health,” said Dr Anne Newman, a Pitt geriatrician and epidemiologist involved in both studies. Now, she said, both studies “illustrate how much capacity we have to retain benefits as we get older. … It’s not ever too late to start.”
Newman and colleagues collected data over 25 years on 5,888 individuals 65 and older in the Cardiovascular Health Study, about one-fourth of them from Allegheny County. Participants were asked at the outset about their various lifestyle behaviours and then monitored afterward to assess whether they had become disabled and how long their period of disability was before death.
The findings were published in this month’s Journal of the American Geriatrics Society by lead author Mini Jacob, a former Pitt doctoral student now at Boston University. The number of disabled years preceding death – meaning the period in which participants had trouble with basic functions such as walking, bathing, dressing or eating – for everyone averaged 4.5 years for women and 2.9 years for men. But there was significant variance from the average, depending on a person’s habits at the time they entered the study.
As an example, a white man categorised as being in the healthiest lifestyle group spent two years disabled compared to 3.7 years for someone with poor habits. Smokers, as an overall subset, achieved 3.1 fewer years of able-bodied life, which was the sharpest difference among lifestyle traits measured. Being obese added 0.7 years to the time spent with a disability.
Such differences in “health span” – the years free of disability – are in addition to people living longer from living healthy, an asset that has been more widely researched and accepted. In general, Newman said, people entering the study at an average age of 72 who had unhealthy lifestyles could count on spending just 60 per cent of their remaining years free of disability, compared to 80 per cent for people documented at the outset with healthy behaviours.
“We were interested in the lifestyle factors because those are modifiable,” Newman said. “We see a big difference in people who have healthy lifestyles by all measures. It’s not just a matter of influencing longevity – it’s a matter of influencing quality of life. It might seem obvious, but it hasn’t been obvious from previous reports.”
The other new findings supporting older adults’ exercise were recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by Yale University geriatrician Thomas Gill. More than 1,600 individuals between the ages of 70 and 89 who were sedentary at the start of the study, one-fourth of them from the Pittsburgh area, were evaluated for their experience with disability.
If they were put in a structured walking-exercise program for the next 3 years, they spent 25 per cent less time with a disability than those who had received only some health education. The walkers were less likely to suffer a disability and more likely to recover from it and recover faster.
“It’s an important part of the active life expectancy story,” relevant since people want to not only live longer but live well during those extra years, said Dr Jack Guralnik, a co-investigator like Newman on that study and a University of Maryland professor of epidemiology and public health.
He said those findings and those of the Cardiovascular Health Study share positive potential for those who focus on healthy habits, a point already made by decreased cardiovascular disease associated with smoking reductions. But when so many people are obese and have diabetes when reaching later years, he said, it shows the challenge of encouraging better lifestyles.
“We don’t know yet what’s happening over time in the population and what will happen in the future,” Guralnik said. “It’s good news if we can be sure the population would just look like the one that’s labeled as having healthy lifestyles.”
Or perhaps, if they would look – and act – like Melvin Judkis.
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