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Staying on Your Feet as You Age

Staying on Your Feet as You Age

August 30, 2005   By: Jean Johnson for Knee1 It was a shock the other day at a San Francisco intersection to see a pony-tailed man in Birkenstocks shuffling along behind a walker. Admittedly the guy’s hair was gray, and he looked like he’d seen more than one Grateful Dead concert. Still, seeing age taking its toll on the generation that thought it would, in Bob Dylan’s words, "stay forever young," brought me up short. If he’s using a walker, you know he either fell already or is in danger of falling. It’s downright tough to see an old hippie turning into a frail elder who might break a hip if he doesn’t watch his step.
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More information on aging and risk from falls:

Over a third of Americans over 65 fall each year.

Falls and associated hip fractures are major causes of disability and death in the elderly.

In addition to muscular weakness, balance can be influenced by inner ear problems, various medications including those given for high blood pressure and diseases including Parkinson’s.

But that’s the biggie as far as keeping one’s mobility and hence, independence as one ages – falling. It can happen in a split second – any time day or night. Once you’re down, there’s no undoing it. Take it from Kathleen Doane who fell four years ago and has been pretty much bed-ridden ever since. Falling can put a real damper on the party. But Doane is 87, and her crooner generation wasn’t too keen on self-help. They were the loungers with their highballs. The golfers who dreamed up carts so they wouldn’t have to walk around the courses. The “I like Ike” post-World War II crowd that enjoyed easy living at the apex of the American economic trajectory. Thus, if we can count on the recent research, Doane in effect set herself up for her fall by living the high life – years of inactivity and a diet high in goodies. But things don’t have to be that way for her children, say the pundits. If those approaching 65 will get their act together now, the experts are agreeing, the pay-off could be quite handsome. So the good news is, for boomers who have more than their predecessors shown themselves willing to change destructive habits, there’s still time. Basically the news that boils down to diet and exercise isn’t all that surprising – until you see the fine print that provides some variations on these old themes. In the activity realm, it’s East meets West with tai chi. The benefits of the ancient Chinese martial art haven’t been lost on the National Institute of Aging in the United States that funded the first two studies of the meditative movement in 1996. But, more recently in 2005, researchers in South Korea’s Daewon Science College have re-examined tai chi in terms of helping seniors stay on their feet. The activity works, they conclude, because the slow, fluid movements improve muscle strength, balance and concentration. Tai chi also allows individuals to harmonize with their environment, an outcome that has the added benefit of creating psychological well-being. “Regular exercise is very important as we get older because when we get to 65 we start losing muscle strength at a rate of up to 2 percent a year,” according to the research team that includes Jung Hyun Choi, Ph.D., R.N. More, Choi and her colleagues conclude from a 12 week study of 68 people averaging 78 years of age in which the group that did tai chi had fewer falls than others, that “tai chi exercise is recognized as a low-intensity exercise that can be safely and easily applied to older adults to prevent falls in the longterm.” Tai chi sounds fun enough for boomers to get on board. After all, that generation always was given to Eastern philosophy and such. It’s the food side of the coin, though, where the balking might begin. Check out what director of the Biochemistry of Aging Laboratory at the University of Florida, Christiaan Leeuwenburgh, Ph.D., has discovered in his studies on 9-year-old rats. “As we age, the key issue is very simple: We become weaker,” said Leeuwenburgh. “Now we’ve found in these studies that we can prevent the loss in muscle function, and we can prevent cell death.” How? By reducing calories by 40 percent. Before you walk away, though, let Leeuwenburgh explain himself. “We all know if we want to get stronger we need to perform resistance exercises, and we definitely need to eat proteins,” he said. At 60 percent of average intake, he notes that Americans will still get adequate protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. The 40 percent that requires cutting, then, is just fluff – a fast-food burger and fries, a pint (or even half) of Ben and Jerry’s, a Starbucks pastry, those couple extra microbrews. Okay… but is there willingness out there? “No sweat,” said Jill Schon of San Francisco. “We boomers abhor extra pounds anyway, and as we age they say we need less calories. I’ve heard that for some time. Metabolism and all. So this new twist makes perfect sense to me.” Schon confesses though, that when it comes to deciding which of her favorites to jettison, it will take much consideration, listening to the arguments of each of her “dears” before determining the wisest course of action. But right now she’s off to tai chi, so all she has to think about is staying centered in the moment. “Yes, now that I think about it that may be the ticket when it comes to eating less as well,” she quipped. “I can do most anything in the moment that would totally freak me out if I thought in terms of months and years. That’s how it was picking up the tai chi habit. Initially I kicked and screamed and would only go once a month if at all. Over the years, though, I’ve really gotten to love the grace of it – and I won’t be surprised if I respond in similar fashion to nourishing my body in a way that values and respects it as it ages.” Wow. Leave it to the Californians to hold the bar of standards firmly in place. Then again, they – and whoever else gets with the program – will probably be the ones left standing.
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