WEDNESDAY, Dec. 28, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Americans are living longer than ever, and by modifying their lifestyles they can also live healthier, happier lives well into their 80s, researchers report.
In a new study, researchers found that in a predominantly Mormon county in Utah, the majority of people reported enjoying good or excellent health, even past age 85. In addition, their later life is not necessarily a steady decline in health, but rather more healthy years followed by a short period of ill health right before death.
The report appears in the February 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
"We tend to hear about physical illness and conditions that are more common with aging," said lead researcher Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, director of the Bryan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Duke University. "So we tend to get a negative perspective of aging. But many older Americans are aging into their 80s, perhaps having some physical illnesses, but having a greater quality of life."
"Overall many of the [study] participants were enjoying what could be considered a healthy life," Welsh-Bohmer added. "They had excellent to very good self-reported health, and in many areas."
For its study, Welsh-Bohmer's team collected data on 3,413 men and women, all 65 and older, who participated in the Cache County Memory Study, an ongoing population-based study of dementia and other health problems. Cache County, located in northern Utah, has the highest conditional life expectancy for men at age 65 in the country, and 91 percent of the population belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The researchers found that 80 percent to 90 percent of participants aged 65 to 75 reported excellent or good health, as did about 60 percent of those over age 85. In addition, 90 percent of participants were healthy enough to live at home, including people 85 and older.
Up to 50 percent of those surveyed had no major disease. The rest were living with at least one physical ailment. As people got older, the percentage of those with a chronic illness increased slightly. However, 40 percent of men and 42 percent of women 85 and older did not suffer from any major disease, Welsh-Bohmer's group found.
"A substantial part of our population is aging beyond age 65," Welsh-Bohmer said. "Despite having some illnesses, they perceive their life and their health to be very good."
Welsh-Bohmer noted that the majority of the people in Cache County don't smoke or drink, and have strong family and community support.
But she believes these findings can be generalized to the U.S. population as a whole.
"There may be some things that are unique to this population," she said. "But it gives us a starting point to identify the factors that are important in giving overall quality to life at 70, 80 and beyond."
One expert thinks the religion of the people in the study accounts for their longer, healthier lives.
"Odds are the findings are significantly related to the underlying religious beliefs of this population," said Richard Suzman, the director of the Behavioral and Social Research program at the National Institute on Aging.
Suzman noted that other studies in special populations, such as Seventh Day Adventists, showed similar results. Dietary restrictions such as no smoking, no drinking, plus social cohesion are important factors in maintaining health and extending life expectancy, he said.
"A good part of how long you live and your health while you're alive is related to your health habits and being socially engaged," Suzman said. "A good part of life expectancy and health are under individual control."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can tell you more about healthy aging.