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Physical Activity Improves Elderly Functioning


Physical activity is known to decrease as one ages, but a new study shows that maintaining an active lifestyle can improve physical functioning and decrease mortality.

The study was done over an 18-year period by the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem and reported in the September 14 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. The 1861 subjects, all born in the years 1920 and 1921, were asked about their level of activity. Those who reported less than four hours of activity per week were classified as sedentary.

Among those over the age of 70, mortality decreased from 27% to 15% for those who were physically active. Among those who continued to be active over the age of 78, the mortality rate was reduced from 40% to 26%.

Less sedentary participants also showed decreased deterioration in physical functioning and were better able to continue activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, and walking. Those who were active also showed less health decline through the maintenance of cardiovascular health, improved immunity, and suppression of chronic inflammation.

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Data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that about 35-45% of American adults over the age of 75 are inactive. About 14% of all deaths in the United States are attributed to insufficient activity and inadequate nutrition. Lack of physical activity is a contributor to chronic disease states such as heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and high blood pressure.

In addition to decreasing lifespan, older adults who are inactive suffer from muscle weakness and reduced functional activity, putting them at risk for falls, a major cause of disability in the elderly. Another benefit to physical activity is the improvement to cognitive performance – being active appears to inhibit the progression of factors that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Remaining active in the older years does not have to be formal or strenuous to reap the benefits. Any amount of regular daily activity is closely linked with a longer lifespan. A study from the American Medical Association found that those who burned 600 more calories each day, through activities such as gardening, household chores and walking, were more likely to live longer. This amounted to about 2 hours each day of physical activity.

It is never too late to become physically active, and these studies show that even a small amount of activity can result in better physical functioning and improved longevity. For those who have been sedentary or suffer from a chronic disease or disability, it is advised to consult with a physician before beginning any intense activity program.

Sources for this article include: American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers of Disease Control.