Living Longer and Healthier: Can We Have Both?

Prior to the 1970s, the concept of healthy aging wasn’t discussed. It was considered a contradiction in terms, and the prevailing view was that people developed various health problems and eventually died from one or more of them.

This perspective began to change when James Fries, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, published a seminal paper in 1980 with a new hypothesis he called “compression of morbidity.” “Morbidity” is defined as the onset of chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and high blood pressure. The period of time from the onset of such diseases until death is typically about 20 years. These diseases now account for 70 percent of deaths in the U.S.

Fries’s hypothesis seems elementary today: If we could shorten or delay the onset of disease, we might not live longer, but the quality of the years we live would be improved. Compressing morbidity could also have an impact on the total cost of health care.

Fries’ paper led to several long-term studies. The first followed 1,700 University of Pennsylvania alumni for 20 years to determine whether those with lower health risks have more or less cumulative disability. Researchers found that the cumulative lifetime disability was four times greater for those who smoked, were obese and didn’t exercise when compared to nonsmokers who were fit and exercised regularly. The onset of morbidity was postponed by nearly eight years for the healthiest group in the study.

A second study followed 537 members of a runners’ club along with 423 control participants for 22 years. Runners developed disability at one-quarter the rate of the control group and postponed disability by more than 12 years in comparison to the most sedentary control participants.

Another study, initiated prior to Fries’ hypothesis, tracked 18,670 men and women with an average initial age of 49 for almost four decades. The results show that those who were fit in their 40s and 50s developed disabling illnesses much later in life. The most aerobically fit lived with illnesses for only the final five years of life, instead of the expected 20 years.

Fries said, “If you had to pick one thing, one single thing that came closest to the fountain of youth, it would have to be exercise.” His studies provide an inspiration to get fit and improve the quality of our final years.

This entry was posted in Aerobics, Fitness Beyond 50. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Living Longer and Healthier: Can We Have Both?

  1. Sandy Hackney says:

    It seems pretty obvious doesn’t it! Doing it is what matters. Somewhere else I read that “The real fountain of youth is lifting weights”. The point here is well-taken that exercise, period, is the true fountain – weights, running, biking – do it all, but do it.

  2. Halyna Traversa says:

    Hey Harry – this is an important counterpoint to the recent news (see this week’s NYT) about studies showing that people who are overweight (BMI’s over 25) live as long or longer than those who are of normal weight or (horrors – this is me!) those who may be deemed underweight. What those studies are not showing however is whether these overweight persons who are living longer are living for many years with serious debilitating diseases. ….would be interesting to know.

  3. John Allison says:

    Harry, who would have known!

Comments are closed.