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Old isn't what it used to be
Raleigh News & Observer


December 29, 2005
Thursday AM

Forget that notion that old age promises only frailty, disease and death.

Many elderly people feel quite well, thank you, a Duke University study has found. That includes people 85 years and older.

And evidence suggests that simple changes - better glasses, high-quality hearing aids or a more active social life - could help even more feel fit.

"You hear the most about elderly people who are sick and disabled. But many elderly people are living a high-quality life until a very old age," said Dr. Truls Ostbye, a Duke Community and Family Medicine professor.




Ostbye's conclusions, published online Wednesday by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, come from the study of close to 3,500 people 65 and older in Cache County, Utah. That spot is of interest to scientists because it has a high population of older adults, giving them a ready group of people to study. Half of the study participants were not college educated, and they represented various income levels.

Reliable data on the experience of elderly people in the United States are more important than ever. All those millions of baby boomers are graying quickly, and the fastest-growing group of Americans is those older than 85.

After so many studies on disease and death, scientists are increasingly interested in health at a later age, too. Evidence is emerging that old age is changing to include longer periods of good health and shortened stretches of illness before death.

In the Duke study, 78 percent of people 65 to 74 years old deemed themselves to be in good or excellent health. For those 85 or older, 61 percent of men and 59 percent of women said the same thing.

For many older people, how they live affects how they feel. Lee Sloane, a resident of Carol Woods retirement community in Chapel Hill, defies stereotypes about growing old.

At 90, she is active in groups that perform volunteer sewing projects, practice folk dances and go bird watching. A couple of times a week, she makes her way to the Carol Woods fitness center and lifts free weights with others her age.

Her generation is not fundamentally different from older folks who have come before, Sloane said. But they might have higher expectations.

"I think we're just more aware that we're capable," she said.

That may be true in sickness and in health.

The results of the Duke study came from people who had not suffered Alzheimer's disease or some other form of dementia. But most had battled at least one serious illness, whether that be heart disease, diabetes, stroke or Parkinson's disease. Still, the illnesses didn't define them.

"It is possible to perceive your health as good in spite of what outsiders may objectively see as disability or disease. If you feel you are healthy and have a high quality of life, that is what is most important," Ostbye said.

The biggest surprise scientists found among the Utah residents is how vital continued social bonds are to people's sense of physical well-being, said Ostbye and co-researcher Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, a Duke medical psychologist.

Changes that isolate people from the wider world, especially hearing loss, visual impairments or separation from family and friends, increased the chances that people felt poorly.

The good news is that such circumstances can often be improved with help from medical professionals or family members.

"This tells me we need to watch out for both our physical and emotional health," Welsh-Bohmer said. "We need to emphasize the importance of tending to social relations, the full balance of life."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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Ketchikan, Alaska