Studies have shown that mid-life physical activity has been associated with better overall health of individuals at older ages. However, the impact of taking up physical activity in later life has not been as closely examined. A recent study addresses the question of the impact of late-life physical activity with outcomes related to healthy aging.
At the beginning of this study, a nationally representative group of 3,454 disease-free English adults with an average age of 64 years old was surveyed about their physical activity in 2003 and 2004. A follow-up eight years later looked at the potential impact of these individuals’ level of physical activity at the time of the survey. At the start of this study, participants were asked how frequently they participated in vigorous, moderate, and light physical activities. Based on their responses, participants were categorized as inactive (no moderate or vigorous activity on a weekly basis), moderately active (moderate physical activity at least once a week), and vigorously active (vigorous physical activity at least once a week). Information on changes in physical activity was also collected and participants were categorized into four groups: always inactive, became inactive, became active, and always active. Here, “active” was defined as doing either moderate or vigorous activity at least once a week. These groupings of participants were then evaluated on how members of each category compared with others in terms of healthy aging. For these researchers, four domains made up healthy aging: 1) being free from chronic disease, 2) having no major cognitive impairment, 3) having no major physical limitations, and 4) having good mental health.
Eight years after the initial evaluation of physical activity, 19 percent of the participants were defined as engaged in healthy aging. On the other hand, 38 percent of the participants had developed a chronic illness, 18 percent had developed depressive symptoms, 32 percent reported a physical disability, 19 percent had cognitive impairment, and 18 percent had reduced mobility. When the level of physical activity at the start of the study was taken into account, those participants with moderate activity were 3.1 times more likely to be healthy agers, and those with vigorous activity were 4.3 times more likely eight years later. This greater likelihood of being a healthy ager among these groups was not affected even when biological risk factors were taken into account. Looking at demographic factors, the wealthy were more likely to be healthy agers, and smokers were less likely to be healthy agers.
Turning to changes in physical activity, over a four-year period, 9 percent of the participants remained inactive, 12 percent became inactive, 9 percent became active, and 70 percent remained active. When compared to those individuals who remained inactive, those individuals who became inactive had a 2.5 times greater likelihood of being healthy agers, suggesting that prior physical activity can have a positive benefit even if it is not continued. Those participants who became active had a 3.6 times greater likelihood of being classified as healthy agers than those who remained inactive, suggesting that even despite earlier inactivity, becoming more physically active later in life can still have positive health outcomes. Lastly, those who remained active had the highest likelihood of being defined as healthy agers compared to those who remained inactive. Those who remained active had 9.5 times the likelihood of being healthy agers. Similar patterns remained even after adjusting for alcohol, smoking, marital status, and income.
The reasons for this impact of late-life physical activity remain unclear, but the researchers suggest that these healthy aging outcomes may be due to the impact of physical activity on decreasing low-level inflammation in the body, which has been linked to components of healthy aging ranging from chronic disease to depression to cognitive decline to disability.
Regardless of the mechanisms behind these outcomes, this research makes clear the importance of public health initiatives designed to get individuals to engage in physical activity, and makes clear that initiatives encouraging a more active lifestyle should also extend to older adults who have previously been inactive.
Hamer M, Lavoie KL and Bacon SL. Taking up physical activity in later life and healthy ageing: the English longitudinal study of ageing. British Journal of Sports Medicine. (2013). DOI:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092993