What is healthy aging?
In an introduction to an article entitled “Nutrition, Physical Activity and Quality of Life in Older Adults,” published October 2001 in The Journals of Gerontology, authors Adam Drewnowski and William J. Evans state, “There is no single segment of our society that can benefit more from regular exercise and improved diet than older adults.”
The same overview study that produced the conclusion above also reported that an increasing number of people age 50 and older are actively participating in or seeking programs or information enabling them to exercise. The other side of the coin, however, is that, in general, “aging leads to lower activity levels and a further narrowing of physical activity options.”
Sedentary lifestyles, which are becoming increasingly common at any age, are especially applicable to most older people. The authors cited above report: “Data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Survey showed that more than 40 percent of U.S. women aged 65 and older reported no leisure time activity in 1992. Recent cross-sectional data from the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study showed that older adults expended significantly less energy on exercise than did younger adults. In the Zutphen Elderly Study of elderly men, mean time spent on physical activity other than walking decreased by 20 minutes per day during 10 years of follow-up.”
In short, many older Americans are falling short of the official recommendations that every American accumulate at least 30 minutes of exercise on most – preferably all – days. That recommendation is based on rapidly accumulating evidence that even moderate physical activity is associated with a substantial drop in all-cause mortality.
Also, “Physical activities that improve muscular strength, endurance and flexibility also improve ability to perform the tasks of daily living … In addition, strength training improves balance and gait speed in very old and frail nursing home residents, improves bone health and decreases many of the risk factors for an osteoporotic fracture. Exercise programs for elderly adults can delay the age-induced impairment in personal mobility necessary for the performance of routine activities.”
Exercise, a term of many meanings, is a major component of the health maintenance/health promotion programs. Perhaps of equal importance is the emphasis, in some cases, on nutritional education and practical improvement of diet. The U.S. Administration on Aging cites studies reporting that unhealthy eating in combination with physical inactivity are risk behaviors responsible for at least 300,000, or 14 percent, of preventable deaths per year. Other evidence suggests good health may be extended and disability delayed by at least seven years if we stop smoking, maintain a weight appropriate for our height and body frame and remain physically active.
Healthy aging is a broad concept that is more than just physical health status or absence of disease; it encompasses many other important aspects of health, including intellectual, emotional, social, vocational and spiritual health. If any of these critical areas are out of balance, optimal, healthy aging may be impaired. Behavior and lifestyle choices impact each of these aspects of health. Therefore, any program designed to facilitate optimal health in aging must address these areas of optimal health through education, behavior modification, and supportive environments.
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