A bit of research from September suggests that aging adults can improve their active years and limit time spent with disability through the use of healthy lifestyle habits. Though the net impact of these healthy habits appears small, the potential to preserve quality of life among older adults should not be discounted.
The study’s subjects were 5,248 men and women aged 65 and older (57% female, 15.2% minority) who were not wheelchair-dependent at the start of the study. The subjects were followed for a 25-year period and lifestyle habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity and exercise, diet quality, BMI, and social supports were measured at the start of the study. Various activities of daily living (ADL) were measured both at baseline and periodically through the study.
Disability was measured with two values: “years of able life” (YAL) was defined by the researchers as the number of years spent since the start of the study without any ADL difficulty. “Years of life” (YoL) was the number of years between the start of the study and the subject’s death. A “YAL/YoL%” score was used to show the proportion of life that was spent under some form of disability.
When analyzed, the average YoL was found to be 15.4 years for women and 12.4 for men. The average duration of disabled years was 4.5 for women and 2.9 for men. This works out to average YAL/YoL% scores of 70% for women and 76% for men. For clarity, a YAL/YoL of 100% would mean that no difficulties with activities of daily life were experienced.
When the lifestyle data was examined, several trends were noticed. Among them:
- Obesity was associated with a loss of 7.3 percentage points compared to normal weight
- Diets in the lowest range of the Alternative Healthy Eating Index were associated with a 3.7 point lower score compared to diets in the highest range
- Every 25 blocks walked in a week was associated with a 0.5 point gain in YAL/YoL%
- Being underweight had the highest likelihood of lower scores among all BMI categories (likely due to underweight usually meaning deterioration from a medical condition like cancer)
- Smoking showed a point drop of around 2.6
- Having one drink or less per week was associated with a 1.9 point increase
These findings were independent of any influence the measured lifestyle factors would have on an aging adult’s lifespan. This means that the study was focused more on quality of life in later years than on how long the subjects actually lived. It’s a useful approach to take since it can be argued that being able to live free of ADL hardship is as important, if not more so than living longer on its own.
Jacob, M., et. al., “Can a Healthy Lifestyle Compress the Disabled Period in Older Adults?” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2016; 10.1111/jgs.14314.