People in the U.S. are living longer than ever before. By 2030, the number of U.S. adults aged 65 or older will more than double to about 71 million. The rapidly increasing number of older Americans has far-reaching implications for our nation’s public health system and will place unprecedented demands on the provision of health care and aging-related services. Research has shown that poor health does not have to be an inevitable consequence of aging. Older adults who practice healthy behaviors, take advantage of clinical preventive services, and continue to engage with family and friends are more likely to remain healthy, live independently, and incur fewer health-related costs. An essential component to keeping older adults healthy is preventing chronic diseases and reducing associated complications. About 80% of older adults have one chronic condition, and 50% have at least two.
Although there is no getting around aging, many seniors live active and healthy lives. Certainly, as we age our bodies and minds change but there are things you can do to stay healthy and active as you age. Of course, exercise is critical.
Regular exercise and physical activity are important to the physical and mental health of almost everyone, including older adults. In fact, being physically active on a regular basis is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself as it relates to aging gracefully. Being physically active can help you continue to do the things you enjoy and stay independent as you age. Even moderate physical activity can improve the health of people who are frail or who have diseases that accompany aging. Regular physical activity over long periods of time can produce long-term health benefits. That’s why health experts say that older adults should be active every day to maintain their health.
In addition, regular exercise and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that develop as people grow older. In some cases, exercise is an effective treatment for many chronic conditions. For example, studies show that people with arthritis, heart disease, or diabetes benefit from regular exercise. Exercise also helps people with high blood pressure, balance problems, or difficulty walking.
As it relates to mental health, exercise can help to reduce the feelings of depression, reduce stress and may improve mood and overall well-being. Cognitively, exercise may help some people maintain or improve their ability to focus or multi-task.
Proof of Healthy Exercise & Better Aging
In 2013 a new study done by researchers from University College London tracked 3,500 people around the age of 64 for a total of eight years. They tracked the participants’ frequency of exercise, history of exercise, and specific exercise behavior during the entire study period. The group was then categorized into two different groups. Moderately active, meaning they worked out at least once a week, or inactive, meaning they did not work out at all.
The study then looked at a variety of aging factors that would contribute to a healthy aging process. These included disease states but also such things as freedom from physical disability, maintenance of cognition and social functioning.
What they found was absolutely stunning (but not shocking to us). The individuals who had been active during the entire 8 year study were seven times more likely to belong to a group of 20% of the participants who were deemed as healthy agers. Interestingly enough, those who initially were not active but became active over the study period were three times as likely to be healthy agers. These two were in contrast to those individuals who were considered unhealthy.
Some of the interesting specific findings included:
- The active group had better immune systems.
- The active group suffered less from inflammation.
- The active group had better overall mental health.
The bottom line is that the researchers concluded that exercise was the closest thing to the fountain of youth that is available to everyone.
If you or an older person you know has fallen, you’re not alone. Whether it was due to a slip, dizziness or a simple trip inside the home on a throw rug; more than one in three people age 65 years or older falls each year. The risk of falling — and fall-related problems — rises with age.
In fact, each year, more than 1.6 million older U.S. adults go to emergency departments for fall-related injuries. Among older adults, falls are the number one cause of fractures, hospital admissions for trauma, loss of independence, and injury deaths.
Fractures caused by falls can lead to hospital stays and disability. Hip fractures are one of the most serious types of fall injury. They are a leading cause of injury and loss of independence, among older adults.
It is common that as one ages their fear of falling increases—even if they haven’t fallen. This may lead to individuals avoiding physical activities, everyday chores or even social activities.
It comes as no surprise that exercise is a huge factor in fall prevention. Exercise improves your balance, strengthens your muscles and increases your flexibility.
Whether you are new to exercise or are a current exerciser, it is important that your program include the important elements of an exercise program that will help with fall prevention. This includes a program with strength/resistance training, balance and coordination as well as exercises to improve flexibility, especially in the back of the legs (hamstrings). Tight hamstrings result in a shifting of the pelvis, which in turn causes a person’s weight to go backwards. When this happens it is natural for a person to bend at the waist to compensate so as to not fall backwards. When any person is walking bent at the waist, it causes their head to look down and a reduction of their field of vision. This chain of physiological events is a huge contributor to falls because a person is no longer looking ahead of them for things that may cause them trouble.
Some other things you can do to prevent falls include:
- Have your eyes and hearing tested. Even small changes in sight and hearing may cause you to fall.
- Find out about the side effects of any medicine you take. If a drug makes you sleepy or dizzy, tell your doctor or pharmacist.
- Get enough sleep. If you are sleepy, you are more likely to fall.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Even a small amount of alcohol can affect your balance and reflexes.
- Be very careful when walking on wet or icy surfaces. They can be very slippery! Try to have sand or salt spread on icy areas by your front or back door.
- Wear non-skid, rubber-soled, low-heeled shoes, or lace-up shoes with non-skid soles that fully support your feet. It is important that the soles are not too thin or too thick. Don’t walk around on stairs or floors in socks or in shoes and slippers with smooth soles.
Aging & Independence
For many older adults the biggest fear they have is losing their independence. This makes sense because independence is instilled in us throughout life. For seniors maintaining independence can be critically important. First of all, being independent creates a level of self-confidence and self-worth about oneself. Second, for those who have retired, keeping their independence may feel like the only thing they can control. The more an individual maintains their fitness and mobility as well as their cognitive function, the more likely they are to keep their independence. If all the previous chapters didn’t provide enough proof about the power of exercise, here are a few more studies that support how exercise will keep you young and independent.
According to an article entitled, “Maintaining mobility in late life,” published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, 137, 858-69, April 15, ’93, men and women aged 65 and older who exercise have a lower risk of losing mobility. The four year study monitored 6,981 men and women found that increased physical activity fostered a significant improvement in mobility.
As reported in the publication Obstetrics and Gynecology, 109. 721-7, March ’07, regular exercise decreases the likelihood of developing arthritis-related disabilities.
A major survey of 3,554 men and women aged 53–63 discovered that regular exercise decreases the likelihood of developing arthritis-related disabilities by 10% among arthritis suffers. Further, inactive arthritis sufferers showed a 37% increase in disabilities as compared with 29% and 27% for those who exercised. And respondents who engaged in 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity five days per week reported increased relief of functional decline related to arthritis.
Of course, cognitive function is critical to maintaining independence. The book Spark was referenced back in Chapter 6 and applies to people of all ages. There are many other studies that also support the benefits regular exercise has on brain health. One such study monitored mean and woman over the age of 55 for six years. The findings, as reported in the Journal of American Medical Association, 292, 1454-61 in September of 2004 concluded that the subjects who were fitter demonstrated less decline in mental acuity.
By maintaining physical strength, reducing the onset of chronic diseases and sustaining cognitive abilities, those of us who are aging can keep our independence longer!