With more and more people living until 90, many of us will have longer lives than our parents. Statistics Canada expects there to be a ninefold increase in the number of centenarians during the next 50 years, with their numbers reaching 62,000 by 2063, compared to just 7,000 in 2013.
But it’s not enough to live longer. The goal is to approach the century mark living a full and active life, not residing in a long-term care facility with little quality of life. Faced with both the probability of living longer and the fear of spending those final years in poor health, interest in finding the proverbial fountain of youth is greater than ever. Combine that interest with more 90-year-olds and the opportunity to study the health of the oldest of old is upon us.
Contrary to popular belief, increasing the odds of living to 90 and beyond isn’t about having the right parents. Rather, it’s a matter of lifestyle. Be good to your body and it will reward you by living longer and staying healthier. Yet the real answers about longevity can’t be found by coaxing a few active nonagenarians and centenarians to reveal their secrets to outliving so many of their peers. It takes a long detailed look at the lifestyles of today and tomorrow’s seniors before the mysteries of a longer life will reveal themselves.
One of the most widespread methods for gathering information about the health and lifestyles of our aging population is to identify a cohort of men and women and track them over the course of decades. Baseline health evaluations are done and compared every five to 10 years, noting who survived and who died. And though the data set remains small and the information preliminary, trends are starting to emerge.
Not surprisingly, one of the strongest predictors of longevity is fitness. Older adults who score well in exercise tests live longer. In fact, a group of Swedish researchers who have been tracking the health of several hundred men and women from age 75 to their current age of 90 suggest that being active actually offsets some of the health consequences related to chronic diseases like diabetes, arthritis, elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure.
It’s worth noting that risk factors among the over-75 group differ from those for 50-year-olds. If you live to 75 and beyond, you’ve avoided most lifestyle diseases associated with an early death (heart disease and several types of cancer). And chances are you don’t smoke. Obesity is rare, having taken its toll in earlier decades. Instead, a whole new set of risk factors like falls and dementia have taken their place.
That’s not to say that the oldest of old have avoided the kind of health issues associated with age. They’ve suffered heart disease and battled high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, but it’s thought that regular bouts of exercise may have been one of the tipping points to outliving their peers.
What were the other predictors of living to a ripe old age of 90? The Swedes noted a healthy blood pressure response during a bout of exercise, a quick return to resting heart rate once a workout is over, strong lung and cardiac function, healthy levels of high-density lipoproteins (the good cholesterol) and no history of a previous heart attack or angina helped pave the way to 90.
What wasn’t outlined in the study, however, is just how much exercise is needed to battle the ravages of aging and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Nor were there any recommendations about whether more time should be spent in the weight room building muscle or keeping our hearts and lungs in shape through cardiovascular exercise like walking, running, swimming or cycling.
Also absent from the Swedish study was any discussion about diet or the effects of stress, alcohol and coffee on longevity — lifestyle choices that have been mentioned in other studies. Instead, they stuck to measurable health outcomes that could be effectively tracked through the decades.
The takeaway from all this is that if you’re not already exercising, it’s time to start. And if you already work out regularly, don’t stop. That doesn’t mean you need to follow the same exercise regime as you age, but it does mean that you need to become more, not less, active when you retire.
Remember, exercise does more than just keep your heart and lungs in good working order. It also helps maintain balance, strength and stamina, which means you’ll not only find it easier to perform the chores of everyday life, you’re be less likely to fall — one of the primary causes of hospitalization among the old and very old. So get out there and work up a sweat. Or at the very least, add a few drops of moisture to your brow daily. Workouts done today will pay off tomorrow and beyond.