Aging: Active Aging Tips (cont.)

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: In the early stages of research on aging, the major outcome variable was longevity or quantity of life, how long the person lives. In recent years, increasing attention has focused on the issue of quality of life. It's not enough to help people live a long life, if they spend the last ten to twelve years suffering from chronic disease, which adversely affects quality of life. There's tremendous interest now in assessing life quality in old age.

Moderator: Let's get to the specifics. How is our senior population doing?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: Our older adult population is living longer and longer, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. For too many older people, old age is associated with physical decline, disability, loss of independence, and chronic disease. It is clear that lifestyle factors, such as regular physical activity, good nutrition, risk reduction, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, can all impact on quality of life for older adults. So some people are doing quite well, but others have significant problems with old age. The chronic diseases, cardiovascular, diabetes, depression, hypertension, and many others, including sarcopenia (that is the loss of muscle strength with advancing age), all of those impact on quality of life.

Moderator: Can those effects be prevented?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: That's the exciting part of working in this field. Most of those chronic diseases can be impacted by lifestyle factors that are quite effective, and affordable. The challenge is to find a way to convince people to change their lifestyle.

Moderator: And what's being done in that regard?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: There are a number of different organizations in the U.S. that are sponsoring the word about the importance of living sensible living patterns. The U.S. surgeon general report was issued by the surgeon general's office. The Centers for Disease Control, ACSM participate in the national coalition for the promotion of physical activity. All of these have spread the word about the importance of physical activity. Recently, NASA has become involved through its work with Senator John Glenn, and has produced a web site about physical activity and aging that thousands of seniors access every day.

Moderator: I've heard that there's an 'epidemic of obesity' in the United States. Is this true?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: Yes, and it's true for all ages, not just older adults, but for children and young and middle-aged persons. America is getting fatter, and more sedentary by the year. This is a public health emergency for our country. And part of the problem for older adults is that the cumulative effects of obesity and inactivity over a lifetime build up to diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions in old age.

Moderator: How is it that we have done this to ourselves?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: I think that there are a number of reasons. Part has been an emphasis in culture throughout the world on making life easier, so we drive to work; instead of doing our laundry we have washing machines, dishwashers, many devices designed to prevent physical activity.

Moderator: So, we're victims of our own technological innovation, then?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: And also, more specific in the U.S., but in other cultures, too, we have de-emphasized the importance of physical education in our public schools. Many children are not required to participate in any physical activity in school. I think that this devalues the importance of being physically active throughout the culture, and enables people to adopt lifestyles that are routinely sedentary without thinking about it.

Moderator: How do you reconcile the truth about the American population with our projected image through advertising?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: I think advertising sends mixed messages. Often we see positive images of healthy and active persons through advertising, but also get advertising promoting different behaviors that are unhealthy such as drinking, smoking, or foods that would not be particularly helpful if abused. I think advertising alone is not going to be sufficient to change the behaviors of the American people. You have to educate and motivate. How do you motivate people to choose to become to more active in their own health and future?

Moderator: How much has our national diet changed in the recent years?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: My area of expertise is not in nutrition, but I would say that there's in general, with industrialization and development of more and more industrialized societies, the diet has tended to increase fat levels, and reduce the proportion of calories from carbohydrates, and that's a problem for obesity.

Moderator: How much of our physical condition when we age is based on genetics?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: When I started out in this field, people used to think that genetics was the major factor. Now, based on animal studies and research on twins, it is increasingly clear that lifestyle is probably more important in determining successful aging than genetics. Researchers estimate that genetics accounts for between 20% and 40% of the variation that occurs with aging. That's good news. Aging is not something that happens to us, it is something we participate in.

Moderator: What issues should one keep in mind when designing an exercise program for seniors?

Dr. Chodzko-Zajko: I think there are a number of issues. First of all, older adults are a very diverse group. And it is not possible to design a single exercise program that will work for older people. I think you have to recognize it should be a program that has multiple dimensions. If possible, exercise programs should involve an aerobic exercise component, or stamina component, a strength training component, as well as balance, flexibility, and agility. Of course, not all of those have to be done on the same day. The actual mode of exercise can vary. People can choose to walk, swim, bicycle, Tai Chi, many different things.