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Articles December 2012 Issue

Staying Active and Social Prolongs Life Even After 75

Even well into your "golden years," exercise can extend your life—and the greatest benefits come just from getting started, such as beginning a regular walking program. "It doesn’t take a lot to make a major difference," says Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, director of Tufts’ John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention. "If you look at the health of people along the whole spectrum, from very sedentary to athletes, the fitness graph isn’t a straight line. It turns out that the biggest jump comes at the very bottom of the range. The less active you are now, the more benefit you get from adding even a small amount of exercise to your life."

Nelson points to a new Swedish study that found people older than age 75 who were physically active and joined in social activities lived an average 5.4 years longer than their less-active peers. Even at age 85 or older, a physically active and social lifestyle was associated with an extra 4 years of longevity. The most important single factor in longevity of study participants was physical activity, which by itself was linked to an extra two or more years of life.

MAKE FRIENDS TO INFLUENCE LONGEVITY.
In the new study, Debora Rizzuto and colleagues from the Karolinska Institute followed 1,810 men and women age 75 and up for 18 years, during which 91.8% died. At the start of the study, participants answered questions about leisure activities, education, occupation, smoking, alcohol use and other health factors, as well as their degree of contact with family and friends.

Publishing their findings in BMJ, Rizzuto and colleagues noted, "Although our current knowledge on the determinants of longevity is limited, the general consensus is that longevity is a multifactorial quantitative trait that is influenced by biological, environmental and psychosocial factors.Our results suggest that encouraging favorable lifestyle behaviors even at advanced ages may enhance life expectancy."

Among those lifestyle factors is maintaining a rich social network, which was almost as beneficial as exercise—associated with living 1.6 years longer. Other factors associated with longer life included normal weight (about 1 year longer than those who were underweight), not smoking (1 year) and alcohol use (1.3 years longer than nondrinkers).

LOWERING YOUR RISK.
Rizzuto and colleagues also grouped these modifiable factors to analyze risk profiles, from low to high. Overall, participants who fell into the high-risk profile lived to be about age 83, while those with low-risk lifestyles lived to age 88. The longevity difference between low- and high-risk lifestyles was more pronounced among men than women.

Adds Tufts’ Nelson, "In the US, by objective measures, fewer than 10% of adults meet the guidelines for getting at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity. So we have a lot of potential to improve!"

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