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And in the very long run, adopting a healthy lifestyle appears to really pay off. Some new research suggests even elderly people with chronic illness can live on to be 100. And the studies tell us more about the links between lifestyle and longevity.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: Average life expectancy may hover around 78, but the number of old-old people - those thriving at 85 and beyond - is multiplying, and quickly.
Mr. WILLIAM HALL (University of Rochester): In fact, it's fastest-growing population in the United States right now.
AUBREY: William Haul of the University of Rochester says a new study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, shows that many of the old-old have decent odds of reaching their 100th birthday, even if they're coping with heart disease or diabetes. The study included 700 centenarians, about a third of whom had been living with a chronic disease for years.
Boston University's Dellara Terry is the study's lead author.
Dr. DELLARA TERRY (Boston University): A lot of people think that if you have major age-related diseases for, you know, 15, 20 years, that you're not going to make it to very old age. And in fact these are folks who not only made it - but they made it to age 100.
AUBREY: The study gives 87-year-old Peggy Dunbar a lift. She says despite high blood pressure and a lung condition, she tries to get up and out every day.
Ms. PEGGY DUNBAR: I really am limited. But I move, I do things, I keep active.
AUBREY: As her husband finds a parking spot along the busy strip of shops...
Ms. DUNBAR: Do I have my keys?
AUBREY: ...Dunbar heads off to shop.
Ms. DUNBAR: You see, before I got married, I'm the student nurse, and in those days they walked and walked and walked. And we didn't even have a car.
AUBREY: So before society engineered exercise out of daily life, Dunbar's habits were already set. These days she tries to fit in two or three exercise classes a week. And this lifestyle choice seems to be a key predictor of longevity.
The most recent evidence comes from a study by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital. They tracked a group of about 2,000 elderly men. They found those who lived the longest had some things in common. Here's the list: they avoided smoking, they didn't become obese or diabetic, they controlled their blood pressure, and they remained active, exercising two to four times per week. Men in this group had greater than a 50 percent chance of living into their 90s, says Laurel Yates, the lead author of the study.
Dr. LAUREL YATES (Brigham and Women's Hospital): The surprise, I think, is the importance of regular exercise in how strongly that was associated both with long life and good function.
AUBREY: Good function meaning these folks weren't just hanging on. Many had good quality of life.
Here again, geriatrician William Hall.
Mr. HALL: It's amazing what people can do when they're - at any age - if they're just simply encouraged. There's so much ageism in this society that constantly reminds older people you can't do this, you can't do that.
AUBREY: But point in fact, Hall says most of it isn't true. He says many older adults, particularly women, do well with group activities, even swimming. Men tend to be motivated by a little friendly competition. Either way, it takes effort.
Mr. Haul: I'm not by any means a Pollyanna about this. You know, aging isn't for sissies. Unfortunately, aging comes with necessary losses: friends, spouses, sometimes children.
AUBREY: And those left behind, Hall says, have to keep active and try to create new friendships.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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