Life expectancy in most of the developed world has been increasing rather rapidly; for example, in Brazil, in 1980 the median lifespan was 62.5 years. Currently, the average is 73.5 years, an almost 18% increase.
Yet while epidemiologists note that we are living longer, they have also noted something that is not as pleasant: that these “added years” to our life span may not be enjoyed with optimal life quality. Many live a significant part of their senior years with chronic diseases and some degree of physical discomfort.
So if we could discover a secret that would help us not just live longer, but also enjoy good health those extra years, that would be worth a lot. A study published in the August 27 Archives of Internal Medicine gives us a big clue as to how to do that.
Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center studied the medical records of 18,670 middle-aged men and women (average age 49) who visited the Cooper Medical Institute in Dallas, Texas, for a general check-up beginning in 1970. They were all healthy at that time, and as part of their original exams, they underwent a treadmill test to check their cardiovascular (aerobic) fitness.
The investigators then looked at the medical records of all these people from 1999 through 2009, when they were in their 70s and 80s. They quantified their chronic illnesses: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, emphysema, colon or lung cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Many of the elderly study subjects had developed one or several of these conditions, but some of them were still healthy, and had none of these problems.
The major result was that the people who were in the bottom 20% of aerobic fitness when they were middle-aged were much more likely to develop chronic illnesses, and develop them much sooner than the people who lived their middle-age years with better aerobic fitness.
The study subjects who were at the top 20% of fitness in middle age were much less likely to develop chronic illness early in their retirement years. They enjoyed much better health when they were elderly. Many did develop these illnesses, but being fit enabled them to “delay” the onset of these problems for 10 or 20 years, so they could enjoy their senior years much more fully.
Is there hope if you are middle-aged and not aerobically fit? Yes. The research also showed that middle-aged people who started out at a poor level of fitness but then improved their aerobic abilities were able to delay the onset of the chronic conditions.
If you (or your parents) are middle-aged and “out of shape”, moving out of the poor fitness category is not so difficult. Just 20 to 30 minutes per day of brisk walking is enough. As the lead author of the study, Dr. Benjamin Willis says: “You don’t have to become an athlete. Just getting up off the couch is key”. If that increases the odds that the last 20 or 30 years of our lives will be free of chronic illness, it seems like a wise investment.
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