January 11, 2023
What are the secrets to aging well? A large new study from Canada has identified several factors that may increase the likelihood that older adults will remain in robust health, free from serious memory problems and other debilitating diseases. Consistent with earlier research, the study found that many of the same factors that lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease may also help lower the risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases of aging, and vice-versa.
For the study, researchers at the University of Toronto followed 7,651 men and women who were part of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, a long-running study involving a cross-section of the Canadian population. They ranged in age from their 50s to 80s. All were in excellent health at the start of the study, free of memory problems, chronic pain or other debilitating conditions. They also reported they had a good network of friends and social support and were generally satisfied with their lives.
The researchers monitored study participants over the next three years to see how they fared. Most continued to do well. Three quarters of those who were aged 55 to 64 at the start of the study period maintained excellent health throughout the study. Among those 80 and older, approximately half remained in excellent health.
Several factors predicted continued good health. Being married, staying physically active and maintaining a healthy weight were all predictors of staying well. Those who had never smoked, had higher incomes, and who did not have sleep troubles, heart disease or arthritis were also more likely to remain in excellent health. Women tended to fare better than men.
“We were surprised and delighted to learn that more than 70 percent of our sample maintained their excellent state of health across the study period,” said the study’s first author, Mabel Ho, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto. “It is remarkable that half of those aged 80 and older maintained this extremely high bar of cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being across the three years of the study. This is wonderful news for older adults and their families who may anticipate that precipitous decline is inevitable for those aged 80 and older.”
The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that older adults who were obese were less likely to maintain good health in later life. Compared to older adults who were obese, those who had a normal weight were 24 percent more likely to age optimally.
Exercise was also an important risk factor in successful aging. Older adults who regularly engaged in moderate to strenuous physical activity were 35 percent to 45 percent more likely to age well, respectively.
“Our findings are in keeping with other studies which have found that obesity was related to a range of physical symptoms and cognitive problems, and that physical activity also plays a key role in optimal aging,” said study author Dr. David Burnes. “These findings highlight the importance of maintaining an appropriate weight and engaging in an active lifestyle throughout the life course.”
Consistent with earlier research showing that smoking is linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other serious ailments, the researchers also found that older adults who never smoked were 46 percent more likely to maintain an excellent state of health compared to current smokers. The study found that former smokers did as well as those who had never smoked, underscoring that it is never too late to quit.
Sleep troubles have also been tied to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and many physical ills. So it is not surprising that the current study found that those who never or rarely experienced sleep problems at baseline were 29 percent more likely to maintain excellent health across the study period. “Clearly, good sleep is an important factor as we age. Sleep problems undermine cognitive, mental, and physical health. There is strong evidence that an intervention called cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is very helpful for people living with insomnia,” said study author Esme Fuller-Thomson.
Income was also an important factor in aging well. Only about half of those below the poverty line aged optimally, compared to three-quarters of those living above the poverty line. The authors speculate that low income may contribute to increased mental stress and less access to a number of important parameters such as good health care and optimal nutrition, all of which may contribute to premature aging of the brain and body.
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Source: Mabel Ho, Eleanor Pullenayegum, David Burnes, Esme Fuller-Thomson: “Successful Aging among Immigrant and Canadian-Born Older Adults: Findings from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA).” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, October 13, 2022