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Exercise the biggest contributing factor to healthy aging, study says

December 12, 2013

When it comes to healthy aging, many factors come into play. Everything from what a person eats to how much sleep he or she gets may have an impact, but a new study out of Wales suggests that exercise stands above the rest. Researchers from Cardiff University followed a group of more than 2,200 older men over three decades and found the participants who followed four specific lifestyle choices were about 60 percent less likely to develop dementia, according to findings published in the journal PLoS One.

Surprised by the findings
While it's no secret that a healthy lifestyle for seniors will reduce the risk of chronic disease, researchers were struck by just how significant of an impact four factors in particular had. Specifically, the team looked to see whether participants were active, did not smoke, maintained a healthy body weight and avoided excessive alcohol intake. Even if they followed just one of these, there was a substantial effect on their health.

"If the men had been urged to adopt just one additional healthy behavior at the start of the study 35 years ago, and if only half of them complied, then during the ensuing 35 years there would have been a 13 percent reduction in dementia, a 12 percent drop in diabetes, 6 percent less vascular disease and a 5 percent reduction in deaths," said principle investigator Professor Peter Elwood.

Never too late
Although the results applied largely to people who started exercising in their late 40s and 50s, previous research has suggested that even if older adults start exercising later in life, they can still reap considerable benefits. These encouraging findings come from analysis of the English Longitudinal Study on Aging, which followed approximately 3,450 men and women with an average age of 64. Among the most telling findings was that those who maintained a regimen of regular physical activity over the course of the eight-year study were about seven times more likely to age healthily.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults 65 and older get approximately 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week, and there are a wide variety of options available for them to do so. Simple activities - such as walking and cycling - are good choices because they have a low impact on aging joints.