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Active Seniors Reaping Benefits of Optimal Aging

7:29 AM, Jul 9, 2012   |    comments
Carol and Bob Blackwell take a daily walk near their suburban Virginia home. Photo: Doug Kapustin, for USA TODAY
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Louisville, KY (written by Martha Elson/The Courier Journal) -- Rachele Guernsey reached for the ceiling, rolled into various positions on her mat and struck warrior poses.

At 82, she's no newcomer to yoga. The Louisville-area woman been taking classes for 25 years and credits it with giving her the strength and flexibility to remain active.

A small, sturdy-looking woman with an air of determination, Guernsey is a widow and grandmother who hikes, travels, volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, helps care for a toddler grandchild, is active at her church and belongs to a book club.

Her lifestyle is an example of what local geriatrics professionals are calling "optimal aging." It's their description for people 65 and older who continue to be physically active and mentally engaged in life.

Geriatrics experts say there's no such thing as "passing" or "failing" at aging -- and no way to avoid being stricken with some illnesses and diseases -- but an "optimal aging" lifestyle can help people live longer and stay healthier.

It's tied to "how you view the world and how you compensate" for growing older, said Dr. Christian Davis Furman, vice chairwoman of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Louisville medical school.

The payoffs of "optimal aging" are fewer health problems, lower medical costs, a more enjoyable life and fewer responsibilities for family members and other care givers, said Jane Thibault, a gerontologist who's retired from U of L Geriatrics and still serves on the advisory board.

The concept is even more important because people are living longer. From 2000-2010, the number of people in the 65-69 and 85-99 age groups grew at a rate three times faster than the population as a whole, according to U.S. Census data.

Almost all population growth throughout the world is now from longevity, said Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics in the Office of Employment and Training with the Kentucky Education & Workforce Development Cabinet in Frankfort.

"It's a demographic revolution the world has never seen before," he said. "It changes all the rules." As a result, people need to live in as "young" a way as possible for "as long as possible," he said.

"Optimal aging" can be marked simply by maintaining a "zest for life," inspiring others and continuing to engage in such activities as writing letters, keeping in touch with friends and participating on Facebook, Thibault said.

Ralph Koslik, 70,  sees "optimal aging" as generally continuing to do what he's done his whole life -- for the rest of his life.

He lifts weights daily and runs three days a week and he recently participated in three track events  a local 50 and Over Games. It was his first track competition since high school, when he was a sprinter, but he's long competed in 5K and 10K races, recently winning in his age category in two 5K races.

"I've always said I'm going to go out for a run the morning of the day I die," he said.

Avital Schurr, another Louisville-area 70-year-old runner said his age is "just a number" and that he still approaches life as he did when he was younger.

He has a doctorate degree and worked as a medical researcher at University of Louisville before retiring and still writes and reviews articles for scientific journals.

His research on rats helped demonstrate that staying physically active helps the brain stay healthy, too, by supplying it with oxygenated blood, he said. His insistence on staying physically active also is a result of a family history of heart problems. Among the victims were his father, who died at age 64 and others who died at younger ages.

Although Schurr has had three stents placed in his heart arteries in the past two years to help clear 95 percent blockages, "my heart is very strong because I've been exercising," he said. His cardiologist told him he would have been gone long ago if he had not remained physically active, he said.

At age 87, Julie Roszell is not an athlete but a volunteer who helps the sick and dying. She makes weekly rounds visiting patients and doing other tasks on the oncology unit at Baptist Hospital East in St. Matthews, as she has been doing for 30 years.

Roszell also started a support group for bereaved parents in 1978 after her daughter was killed in a car accident.

Thibault, the gerontologist, says volunteering has been shown to improve the health and state of mind of volunteers, in part because it "gets your mind off yourself."

Thibault also noted that improved health care is another factor that makes "optimal aging" more feasible.

"Older adults now are a lot healthier than they were a generation ago," she said. "That really started with Medicare in the middle and late '60s" and the availability of better medical care.

"When people feel healthy, they're more likely to be more active," she said.

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