New Study: Middle Age Fitness Improves Quality of Life in Old Age
Other than kids being told by parents (and a lot of other people) to think about ‘what they want to be when they grow up,’ how much thought do most people give to the full span of their life? Although the average life span of people in the developed world is now approaching 80 years (78 years in the U.S.), how many people in their 30s and 40s give serious thought to the 15-35 years of their life after the nominal age of retirement at 65?
These are rhetorical questions, of course, and the answer is “not many” and the response should be “too bad.” That’s because research continues to show that what you do in middle age may have major consequences on the quality of your life after 65.
A new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the Cooper Institute in Dallas and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that becoming fit in middle age – even without a previous record of exercise – has a profound impact on aging.
The study looked at the medical records for 18, 670 men (79%) and women (21%) with a median age of 49 who lived to receive Medicare coverage from January 1, 1999 to December 31, 2009. The Medicare records provided information on the incidence of chronic disease. All of the participants had initial fitness tests (treadmill, blood work, physical examination and lifestyle inventory), which the researchers classified by quintiles (top 20% very fit to bottom 20%, least fit). As is typical for Americans, the majority of people were in the bottom 20%.
This study was the first to use the Medicare information, with permission, to compare the health record of the people whose fitness was measured in their 40s and 50s and who are now in their 70s and 80s. The results of the study were quite clear – those adults who were the least fit in middle age were the most likely to suffer from chronic conditions.
The study considered eight conditions: stroke, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, colon and lung cancer, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and chronic kidney disease. Correspondingly, the people who were most fit in middle age had fewer incidents of chronic disease and perhaps more importantly, when they did develop chronic disease it developed later in old age.
That last point turned out to be the most revealing from the study. While people who exercised in middle age lived only slightly longer and had somewhat less chronic illness – their overall level of good health persisted longer into old age. Put another way, people who exercised and remained fit in their 30s and 40s were more likely to have more years beyond 65 with relatively good health. In short, they enjoyed a better quality of life for longer.
Few would argue that fitness throughout life is a good thing, but studies such as this one point to the middle years of life as crucial to establishing health patterns that persist into old age. It is also an age where exercise and dietary habits are more easily changed. This study provides evidence for an important piece of motivation for this kind of change.
As Dr. Jarett Berry, an author of the study explained, “Our study suggests that someone in midlife who moves from the least fit to the second-to-the-least fit category of fitness gets more benefit.” This is to say that even a modest improvement in overall fitness in middle age pays marked benefits in the delay of chronic illness in old age. What does ‘modest improvement’ mean in this case? As little as 20 to 30 minutes of walking or similar moderate exercise a day will do. You don’t need to become an athlete or engage in punishing exercise.
Overall, people have difficulty with lifestyle changes. Unless driven by immediate illness, many, if not most people are reluctant to give up certain pleasures – eating favorite foods, passive entertainment – and other unhealthy habits. We’re not accustomed to living a long time and those ‘extra years’ that happen after retirement rarely enter into the mental picture until people are in their fifties. Studies such as this one point to a need for some type of new ‘lifestyle education and planning’ that should be a part of our thinking from the time we’re teenagers until the day we die.