Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Living Longer, in Good Health to the End

“The fastest-growing segment of the population consists of people over 85, and by 2050 some 800,000 Americans will have celebrated their 100th birthday. Doomsayers consider this a terrifying trend, bound to bankrupt Social Security and Medicare and overwhelm the ability of doctors and medical facilities to care for the burgeoning population of the oldest old. But there is increasing evidence that the societal burden of increased longevity need not be so drastic. Long-term studies have shown that how people live accounts for more than half the difference in how hale and hearty they will remain until very near the end. Dr. Richard S. Rivlin, an internist and director of the nutrition and cancer prevention career development program at Weill Cornell Medical College, said in an interview that it was never too late to adopt habits that predict a healthy old age. In The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year, Dr. Rivlin noted that changes in body composition, like loss of bone and muscle and accumulation of body fat, typically accompany aging and can affect health in a variety of ways: poor posture that impairs breathing; falls and fractures; loss of mobility; a reduced metabolic rate; and weight gain that can lead to diabetes, heart and blood vessel disease and some forms of cancer. But these changes in body composition, he added, ‘are not an invariable accompaniment of aging.’ Much can be done to limit and even reverse them, he said, including restricting calories and following a diet of high-quality protein and limited saturated fat and replacing simple sugars with whole grains rich in fiber. A second critical measure for the ‘young-elderly,’ as he calls 70-year-olds, is to ‘make regular exercise a part of their daily lifestyle,’ including aerobic activities that raise the heart rate; weight-bearing activities that strengthen muscles and bones; and stretching exercises that reduce stiffness and improve flexibility and balance. Other long-term studies have also pinpointed exercise as the single most potent predictor of healthy longevity, in women as well as in men. It is not that very old people…can exercise because they are healthy, these findings indicate. Rather, they achieve a healthy old age because they exercise.”


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