Aging Gracefully

March 31, 2006

Older Americans enjoy good health for a longer period than previously realized, and many factors that compromise health in elderly people can be modified to maintain their health, according to recent findings from a multi-university study led by researchers at Duke Medical Center. Consequently, the researchers say, physicians should understand that long spans of illness and disability are not necessarily part of normal aging.

The study shows that the majority of people enjoy good or excellent health, even past age eighty-five. Later life is not necessarily defined by a steady decline in health, but rather by more healthy years followed by a much shorter period of ill health immediately before death. "We hear a lot about disease and disability among the elderly, but the quality of life in older individuals is actually, by most measures used, high up to the oldest of age," says Truls Ostbye, lead author of the study and a professor in Duke's department of community and family medicine. The results of the study were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The study included nearly 3,500 men and women over age sixty-five. They were asked to self-report their overall health on ten measures, including their ability to carry out activities of daily living (ADLs), such as dressing or bathing; the presence of any major illness, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or cancer; and their level of social activity.

Between 80 percent and 90 percent of participants ages sixty-five to seventy-five reported excellent or good health, and approximately 60 percent of those over age eighty-five did so. According to the researchers' analysis of the data, nearly 90 percent of participants were healthy enough to live at home, including those eighty-five and older. More than 90 percent of men and women ages sixty-five to eighty-four were independent in all ADLs, and more than two-thirds over age eighty-five could complete these tasks alone.

Many of the problems older individuals listed as impairing their overall health and quality of life could potentially be modified, says Katrina Krause, clinical research coordinator in Duke's department of community and family medicine and a co-author of the study. The three most common factors affecting self-reported health--poor vision, hearing loss, and mood--can often be treated with clinical interventions, such as prescriptive lenses, hearing aids, or antidepressive therapy.