We baby boomers are aging! My birthday this week is a reminder of that fact. With the oldest members of that baby boom group (not me!) now approaching their 65th birthday, the need to understand how we grow older is becoming more important to both individuals and society.
Today, increasing numbers of individuals are reaching extreme old age while maintaining good health and functional status. Understanding why some people are resistant to disease and functional decline and identifying ways to stay healthy are challenges for the future. The answers may help us learn new ways to live longer and healthier than ever before.
The process of aging is not fully understood. However, the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, has been studying aging for the past 50 years. An on-going study, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging (BLSA), sponsored by the NIA, celebrated its 50th birthday last year. When the study began in 1958, the post-war baby boom was just becoming a phenomenon.
Two major conclusions have come from the BLSA study. First, "normal" aging is different from disease. Although people's bodies change and can in some ways decline over time, these changes do not inevitably lead to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, or dementia. A number of disorders that typically occur in old age are a result of disease processes, not normal aging.
Secondly, no single, chronological timetable of human aging exists. We all age differently. In fact, in terms of change and development, there are more differences among older people than among younger people. Genetics, lifestyle, and disease processes affect the rate of aging between and within all individuals.
The BLSA and other studies show some of the actions we can take that may lead to healthy aging. Remember that before trying anything new, talk with your doctor to determine what is best for you.
One of those actions is to get moving -- exercise and do other physical activities. Research suggests that people who exercise regularly not only live longer, they live better. Being physically active -- doing everyday activities that keep your body moving such as gardening or walking the dog can help you continue to do the things you enjoy and stay independent as you age.
Regular exercise and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that often occur with age. For instance, balance exercises help prevent falls, a major cause of disability in older adults. Strength exercises build muscles and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Flexibility or stretching exercises help keep the body limber and give freedom of movement needed to do everyday activities.
Exercise may even be an effective treatment for certain chronic conditions, such as arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Evidence suggests that people who begin exercise training in later life, for instance in their sixties and seventies, can also experience improved heart function.
Studies also show that exercise helps breathlessness and fatigue in older people. Endurance exercises -- activities that increase breathing and heart rate -- such as dancing, walking, swimming, or bicycling, increase stamina and improve health of lungs and circulatory system, as well as the heart.
There are many ways to be active. You can be active in short spurts throughout the day or you can set aside specific times of the day or specific days of the week to exercise. Many physical activities, such as brisk walking or raking leaves, are free or low-cost and do not require special equipment.
For more information about how to get started and stick with an exercise and physical activity program, go to www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Public.... You'll find worksheets so keep track of your progress, answers to frequently asked questions, and resources for more information.
Other factors also influence healthy aging, such as body weight and shape, nutrition, social activities, health screenings and preventative medicine. I'll cover the research findings on those topics in a future column.