Living past 90, and living well, may be more than a matter of good genes and good luck. Five behaviors in elderly men are associated not only with living into extreme old age, a new study has found, but also with good health and independent functioning.
The behaviors are abstaining from smoking, weight management, blood pressure control, regular exercise and avoiding diabetes. The study reports that all are significantly correlated with healthy survival after 90.
While it is hardly astonishing that choices like not smoking are associated with longer life, it is significant that these behaviors in the early elderly years — all of them modifiable — so strongly predict survival into extreme old age.
“The take-home message,” said Dr. Laurel B. Yates, a geriatric specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who was the lead author of the study, “is that an individual does have some control over his destiny in terms of what he can do to improve the probability that not only might he live a long time, but also have good health and good function in those older years.”
There was no less chronic illness among survivors than among those who died before 90. But after controlling for other variables, smokers had double the risk of death before 90 compared with nonsmokers, those with diabetes increased their risk of death by 86 percent, obese men by 44 percent, and those with high blood pressure by 28 percent. Compared with men who never exercised, those who did reduced their risk of death by 20 percent to 30 percent, depending on how often and how vigorously they worked out.
A second study in the same issue of the journal suggests that some of the oldest of the old survive not because they avoid illness, but because they live well despite disease.
The study of 523 women and 216 men ranging in age from 97 to 119 showed that a large proportion of people who lived that long and lived with minimal or no assistance did so despite long-term chronic illness. In other words, instead of delaying disease, they delay disability.
Dr. Dellara F. Terry, the lead author and an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University, said the study showed that old age and chronic illness were no reason to stop providing thorough treatment. “We should look at the individual in making treatment decisions,” Dr. Terry said, “and not base our decisions solely on chronological age.”
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