Debbie Nicholson

Being physically fit in those mid-years means a healthier older you

The link between fitness and mortality has been extensively studied however; the link between midlife fitness and the development of nonfatal chronic conditions in older age has not been examined until now.

It is well known that staying fit as you age lessens the risk of death but none of the research has ever explored just how much fitness may affect the hardship of chronic disease in most senior years a hypothesis called compression of morbidity simply defined as that the burden of lifetime illness may be compressed into a shorter period before the time of death, if the age of onset of the first chronic infirmity can be postponed which brings us to this present research.

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Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center and The Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas have seemed to find the answer to postponing chronic illness.

In order to investigate the link between midlife fitness and chronic disease outcomes later on in life researchers had used participant information from the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study associated to Medicare claims. The Cooper Study started collecting patient information in 1970, at present more than 100,000 patients are in the database.

Researchers studied 18,670 healthy participants with an average age of 49 years and 21% of the participants had been women, who survived to receive coverage from Medicare from January 1, 1999 to December 31, 2009. Fitness levels were measured by walking on a treadmill and grouped by age, sex and divided into four fitness levels ranging from very low to high.

Participants were followed for a period of 25 years with chronic diseases being recorded as the participants were approaching senior age. Researchers looked at eight chronic diseases; heart failure, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer's, colon or lung cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

Researchers at 26 year follow-up found that the participants with the highest fitness level were linked with a lower rate of chronic diseases in comparison to those with the lowest fitness level. Upon examination the study showed that during midlife years when fitness is increased by 20% it lessens the risk for developing chronic diseases such as colon cancer and cognitive heart failure decades later by 20%.

When looking at age specific men had decreased their risk for chronic diseases by 45% between the groups of the highest to lowest fitness levels and for women they had shown a decrease of chronic diseases by 43% in the two groups.

During the study period 2,406 patients had died. Out of the 711 participants in the highest fitness group, a relatively low incidence of 9.5% had four or more chronic diseases in the last five years of life.

Dr. Benjamin L. Willis, MD, MPH, staff epidemiologist and works in concert with UT Southwestern collaborators and first author of this study states “What sets this study apart is that it focuses on the relationship between midlife fitness and quality of life in later years. Fitter individuals aged well with fewer chronic illnesses to impact their quality of life,” according to Southwestern Newsroom.

Dr. Jarett Berry, MD, assistant professor at Southwestern said that these findings suggest that aerobic activities such as walking, jogging or running translates not only into more years of life but also into higher quality years, compressing the burden of chronic illness into a shorter amount of time at the end of life.

The positive effect had remained until end of life with more fit individuals living the last five years of life with fewer chronic diseases. These effects applied to both men and women.

This study appears in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) states that adults should have a minimum of two and half hours of moderate to intense aerobic activity each week.