In the 1900s, life expectancy was under 50 years old. Today, the average life expectancy is more than 75 years for men and more than 80 years for women. By 2030, 1 in every 5 Americans will be 65 years or older — what we often call “the silver tsunami.” Many health care providers worry about the cost and burden of care of an elderly population with chronic illnesses. The question remains: is chronic disease an inevitable outcome of ageing? Previous studies have shown us that what happens at mid-life can be a predictor of what happens in later years. So-called modifiable risk factors such as smoking, obesity, diet and exercise will impact how well you survive in your older age.

Some studies have shown that physical activity increases healthy ageing, a survival that is free of disability and overall health benefits. There is not however a lot of evidence on women that exercise will impact on ageing and outcomes of ageing. We do know that on average, women live longer than men, so identifying modifiable risk factors for what is called “successful ageing” is critical.

In this week’s Archives of Internal Medicine comes a study was taken from the Nurses’ Health Study that looks at the relationship between midlife physical activity such as walking and successful ageing by measuring health outcomes such as the onset of chronic diseases, cognitive functioning and physical functioning as well as mental status. There were 13,535 participants in this study. At time of entry they were free of major chronic diseases.  They were then followed over the next decade or so.

For purposes of the study, successful ageing meant:

  • no history of 10 major chronic diseases
  • no coronary artery bypass
  • no cognitive impairment
  • no physical impairment
  • no mental health limitations

Some 1,456 women met the criteria of successful ageing by the end of the study. Successful survivors were more active, leaner and less likely to smoke. Not only did physical activity increase the likelihood of a positive result, but both the frequency and intensity of the exercise had a dose-response. For example, for women who had an easy walking pace, the did not do as well as women with a moderate or very brisk walking pace. If very brisk, the odds had a 2.68 increase positive outcome.

What is encouraging is that walking as an exercise if performed at a moderately brisk pace or faster has the ability to increase the likelihood of exceptional survival. What also is encouraging is that regardless of how lean or heavy a woman was, exercise still impacted on outcome. Regardless of body weight, if you are active in physical activity it will increase the likelihood of aging successfully. Regardless of the baseline of activity, what made the difference in survival was activity in mid life years.

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