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Exercise Can Extend Survival in the Golden Years

Israel researchers found that even in the "oldest old," people in their mid- to late 80's, a little regular physical activity can extend life by at least a few years.

"Indeed, it seems that it is never too late to start," the researchers reported in Archives of Internal Medicine. Their study showed that the 3-year survival rate was about 3 times higher for active 85-year-olds compared with those who were inactive. Active was defined as getting more than 4 hours of exercise weekly.

They noted that exercise reaped benefits even for previously sedentary 85-year-olds whose 3-year survival rate was double that of inactive 85-year-olds.

The seniors in the study were not super athletes. Physical activity could include 4 hours walking weekly, even if it was just in 15-minute strolls a few times daily. In fact, according to study author Dr. Jeremy Jacobs, "As little as 4 hours of walking per week was as beneficial as more vigorous or prolonged activity."

The active octogenarians also reported less depression and loneliness and a greater ability to perform daily tasks.

The study involved 1,861 Jerusalem residents who were 70 years old in 1990. They completed questionnaires about their health and activity levels through 2008. At age 85, 64% of the participants were physically active, a relatively high percentage that reflects the Israeli lifestyle, though Dr. Jacobs said similar benefits from exercise would most likely be seen among the very old in other countries.

There were a total of 512 deaths in the study group as a whole. Slightly fewer than 7% of the active 85-year-olds died by age 88, versus about 24% of those who were inactive. Researchers took into account factors that also affect survival, such as overall health, whether they smoked, etc. They still found that activity levels were strongly related to longevity.

So even in the "oldest old," including previous "couch potatoes," a little physical activity can go a long way!

Jochanan Stessman, MD; Robert Hammerman-Rozenberg, MD; Aaron Cohen, MD; Eliana Ein-Mor, MA; Jeremy M. Jacobs, MBBS. Physical Activity, Function, and Longevity Among the Very Old. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(16):1476-1483.

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