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Physical Activity Lowers Mortality & Improves Health in Elderly

Among the very old, not only continuing but initiating physical activity was associated with better survival and function, according to a new study.

Most studies conducted on physical activity have focused on middle-aged adults. Researchers from Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center wanted to determine the relationship of physical activity, function and longevity among the very old.

The study which used data from the Jerusalem Longitudinal Cohort Study included almost 1,900 people who were born in 1920 and 1921. Health, functional and disease status were assessed at three intervals (ages 70, 78 and 85 years). Mortality data was also collected over an 18 year period, from 1990-2008.

Physical activity status was determined for each participant. Those who engaged in less than 4 hours per week of physical activity were considered sedentary. Physically active participants were those who engaged in physical activity about 4 hours per week, performed vigorous sports at least twice weekly (jogging or swimming) or maintained regular physical activity (walking an hour each day).

Overall, study participants had very high levels of physical activity despite their advancing age. At ages 70, 77 and 85 years, 53.4%, 76.9% and 64.0%, respectively were physically active. The authors pointed out that these participation rates were probably much higher than those seen in the U.S. Men were slightly more likely to participate in physical activity than women (56.0% vs. 50.2%, respectively).

Increased activity levels were associated in participants with higher educational levels, lack of financial difficulty, less depression, good self-rated health status, and independence in activities associated with daily living. Physically active participants took fewer medications and reported fewer falls or fractures, and less chronic joint or musculoskeletal pain.

Engaging in physical activity significantly improved the odds of survival in each age group. At age 70, the 8 year mortality rate was 15.2% for the physically active vs 27.2% for sedentary participants. At age 78, it was 26.1% vs. 40.8% and at age 85, the 3 year mortality was 6.8% vs. 24.4%.

A change in physical activity levels modified the mortality benefit. Those who consistently or increased their exercise level was associated with better survival at 70 to 78 years and even at 78 to 85 years. At the same time, in those individuals that cut back on exercise, their mortality rate increased to that of sedentary participants.

Study authors concluded, “Our study provides unique evidence that not only maintaining physical activity but also starting to be physically active across a spectrum of advancing ages, up to and including the oldest, is associated with improved function and survival.”

The Bottom Line

This study highlights the many reasons for continuing or embarking on an exercise program even late in life. Aside from the obvious health benefits, physical exercise helps to alleviate a number of issues that are associated with aging: depression, loneliness, and the ability to live independently.

Many older adults may worry about injuring themselves when starting an exercise program late in life. This should not be a concern. As this study suggests, exercise related injuries decrease in frequency among elderly exercisers. In addition, physical activity does not increase the likelihood of osteoarthritis in the knee.

For those who embark on an exercise program in their 70s, 80s or beyond, it seems like that old adage, “it’s never too late to start” holds true.

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