Older people who are physically active are apt to live longer than theirsedentary peers

September 23, 2009

Older people who are physically active are apt to live longer than their couch-potato peers, and are more likely to maintain their independence, new research from Israel shows. The great news is that people who had been sedentary but became active -- even those who started when they were well into their 80s -- cut their risk of dying and lengthened the amount of time they were able to live on their own, Dr. Jeremy M. Jacobs of Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem and his colleagues found. “The take home message is that even among the very old, it never is too late to start exercising,” Jacobs noted in an interview.

To investigate, the researchers looked at 1,861 people 70 to 88 years old who had been followed for up to 18 years. Those who got at least 4 hours of exercise each week were classified as physically active, while those who got less were considered sedentary. Among active 70-year-olds, 15 percent died over the next 8 years, compared to 27 percent of sedentary 70-year-olds. Eight-year mortality was 26 percent for active 78-year-olds, and 41 percent for their sedentary peers. Among 85-year-olds, 3-year mortality was roughly 7 percent for active individuals and about 24 percent for sedentary people.

Being active also increased the likelihood that a person would be able to continue to perform activities like bathing, dressing and eating by themselves; people who were active when they were 78 were nearly twice as likely to maintain independence in their activities of daily living when they reached 85.

The message of his findings for older people, Jacobs said, is to start being active today if you aren't already. “The beauty of our finding is that the benefits of activity were seen with as little as 4 hours a week of gentle activity. That's just over 30 minutes a day.” To stay safe people should start slowly and rest as needed, he added, and anyone with a history of falls or who is concerned that they are unsteady on their feet should seek medical advice before starting to exercise. It's also important, he added, to watch out for traffic and avoid extremes of temperature.

“Walking is my first choice,” Jacobs said. “In addition to the physical benefits, the act of getting outside daily, meeting people, interacting with the outside world and changing seasons are all ingredients of successful aging.” The study is published in the September 14, 2009 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.