Is 80 the new 60?
The Hutchinson Center embarks on vigorous study that may lead to activity guidelines for the very elderly
By Colleen Steelquist, Hutchinson Center Science Editor
You know the old adage: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it? It’s true for science, too. A Hutchinson Center researcher is leading a first-ever study to objectively measure activity in 8,000 women over age 80 nationwide.
Eventually, the federally funded research will inform the creation of activity guidelines for the very elderly, a group long ignored in studies about activity and disease risk.
Led by Dr. Andrea LaCroix, a Center epidemiologist focused on healthy aging in women, the study will help determine how much, how vigorous and what types of physical activity are necessary to maintain heart health and prevent falls later in life. The data will also support future research on activity and risk reduction for a variety of other diseases.
Past studies have asked people to report their activity level, but that approach has pitfalls, LaCroix said.
“First, most people overestimate their activity and underestimate their sedentary time. Most people tend to live very sedentary lifestyles and would be shocked if they actually knew how little they really moved each day.
“Second, questionnaires used to measure physical activity don’t capture a lot of the things that older people do. They don’t ask about folding the laundry or playing with the grandchildren, and so those things don’t get measured.”
The value of accelerometers
Instead of such guesswork, the study participants—all longtime Women’s Health Initiative volunteers—will wear “accelerometers,” small monitors worn on the hip that provide an objective measure of everyday movement. The devices track vertical, horizontal and perpendicular activity as well as sedentary time. The women will also complete expanded questionnaires with realistic examples of the types of activities that seniors actually do.
Considering nearly 10 percent of the U.S. female population will be octogenarians by 2040, realistically knowing how best to stay healthy, strong and active in our later years is a critical question.
“We all know it is good for people to be active. The question is, what amount of activity is really necessary for older people to maintain their health and mobility? Riding your bike for 30 miles when you’re 18 might be a vigorous activity, but when you’re 80, it might be walking for three blocks. With this study, we hope to find out,” LaCroix said.
The study draws from the 30,000+ women over age 80 enrolled in WHI, and LaCroix said she’s grateful for their commitment and contributions to science. “We couldn’t do this kind of research without them. Lots of these women are still very active. It’s no longer the case that you’re ‘old’ when you get to be 80. Eighty is the new 60,” she said.