12-18 September 2014 #724

The oldest old

People all over the world are living longer.
Dhanvantari by Buddha Basnyat, MD

People all over the world are living longer. In 1900, the life expectancy in the United States was 49 years. Today, the country has a life expectancy of 79 years. In Nepal too, the life expectancy has grown from 50 years in 1980 to 67 years.

A well-known US television programme 60 Minutes recently did a fascinating story on people who are above 90 years, the fastest growing group of the US population.

Called the ‘oldest old’, the programme focused on a questionnaire based study that analysed factors such as diet, exercise, vitamins, alcohol intake that may have influenced the longevity of this age group. 14,000 people participated in the study.

While some of the findings proved contrary to our present belief and understanding regarding old age, most were dead on target. For example, if you are a smoker, the finding showed that your chance of reaching 90 was severely compromised. But if you drank moderately (two drinks a day), you were more likely to reach that pinnacle of old age. And what kind of liquor you drank did not matter. The people who sell red wine have clearly convinced consumers about its good health effects, but living longer does not seem to be one of its exclusive benefits. Also, taking supplemental vitamins did not impact on longevity in this group.

Regarding exercise, the report said people who exercised definitely lived longer than those who did not. As little as 15 minutes of work out a day made a difference. The best results however came with regular 45 minutes of exercise.

Surprisingly, more was not better here. Three hours of exercise, the finding showed, was not more effective than the ideal 45 minutes. Whether this was just a quirk in the data or an actual finding needs to be examined further.

Another interesting finding the 60 Minutes programme reported was that people in their eighties and nineties, were better off being a bit overweight. This may be because of some reserve of nutrition that helps boost immunity and body defense mechanism to fight off infections. This did not mean that you had to be obese, but being underweight, clearly did not help matters.

Dementia was an important focus of the report because people “lose” their minds more quickly as they age. An incredible finding was that if you were in your nineties, it was better to have a slightly higher blood pressure to protect you from suffering from dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease than if you had low blood pressure. The bad news about suffering from dementia was that the risk of developing dementia doubled every five years after the age of 65 and kept doubling right along so that even after the age of 90, participants continued to develop dementia. Unlike what the scientists expected, there was no “cut off” age for dementia.

Many of the people in the study were selfless and donated their brain to science after death so that more studies could be done to figure out the cause of dementia. Preliminary findings from these brain autopsies showed that it may not just be the plaques in the brain that cause dementia as is widely believed, but micro infarcts (small strokes) may play a bigger role in causing this disease.

This was a simple questionnaire- based study, but the findings will inform further research in helping scientists understand old age more comprehensively so that those privileged to live long may be able to live more fruitful and enjoyable lives.

Read also:

Pit falls of old age, Buddha Basnyat