Seniors who eat healthy, exercise regularly, keep a trim waistline and stay away from smoking can look forward to more disability-free years, a new study finds.
“There is great concern in society that a longer life will be a great burden to society,” said study co-author Dr. Anne Newman, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Aging and Population Health.
“This study shows that a longer life was also a better life in those with healthy lifestyles,” she said.
The bottom line, said Newman, is that those with the healthiest habits could expect to live out roughly 80 percent of their remaining years disability-free. In contrast, among those with “the lowest level of health habits, only 55 to 60 percent of [their] remaining years were disability-free,” she added.
“So, we can say that having a healthy lifestyle later in life was important for staying healthy and disability-free,” Newman said.
For the study, Newman’s team sifted through data on almost 5,900 men and women aged 65 and older. At the start of the study, all the seniors were fully mobile and lived independently in Sacramento County, Calif.; Forsyth County, N.C.; Washington County, Md.; and Allegheny County, Pa.
Starting in 1990, and continuing for another 25 years, the researchers tracked the study participants’ lifestyle habits twice yearly. Those habits included smoking, drinking and physical activity, as well as diet, weight status and socializing routines.
By the end of the study period, roughly nine in 10 participants had died. On average, women tended to live 15 years after the launch of the study, and almost 11 of those years were characterized as disability-free. That meant they had no difficulty performing routine daily activities, such as eating, using the bathroom, getting dressed, getting in and out of bed or a chair, and walking throughout the home.
Men in the study lived an average of 12 years, and were considered disability-free for about 10 of those years.
But lifestyle was found to have an effect on disability risk.
After adjusting for factors such as age, race, income level, educational background, marital status and ongoing long-term health issues, the study authors found those who led the healthiest lifestyles lived longer and with fewer years of disability than those who led the least healthy lifestyles.
Specifically, obese men and women saw both their longevity and their overall years of able living cut by more than 7 percent, compared with those of normal weight.
Similarly, the least healthy eaters saw both their longevity and years of able living drop by nearly 4 percent.
And for every additional 25 blocks a man or a woman walked per week, their longevity and years of able living rose half a percentage point.
The findings were published in the October issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Dr. Gregg Fonarow, co-director of the preventative cardiology program at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the study suggests that “it is never too late to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle and derive health benefits.
“The magnitude of benefit in terms of extra years of disability-free life associated with these factors may be surprising to many,” he said.
“(But) these findings suggest that, even later in life, having or adopting healthy lifestyle factors can potentially extend the period of future life lived with good health, free of disability,” Fonarow said.