Rejuvenating them old bones

January 03, 1995

Researchers have long known that as women age their risk of developing osteoporosis -- a loss of bone mass that can lead to brittle or broken bones -- increases dramatically. And for years women were told that the condition could be prevented if they started drinking milk and lifting weights while still in their teens. Now a new report suggests it's never too late to begin working out, and that seniors who do can significantly reduce their risk of broken bones and fractures.

Osteoporosis, a thinning of the bones that often accompanies aging, especially in women, causes some 1.5 million fractures every year. Such injuries can lead to long-term disability or even death, and are responsible for more than $10 billion annually in medical costs.

Previous studies had suggested that exercise can be beneficial for even the oldest men and women. But the latest research is the first to show that weight-bearing exercises can affect many different risk factors for osteoporosis simultaneously. Women who participated in the program, which was conducted by researchers at Tufts University in Boston, not only showed increased bone density and muscle strength but also scored higher on balance tests, a crucial factor in the kinds of falls that often result in hip and spinal fractures.

This work has implications that go beyond the narrow but important focus on bone loss among the elderly. It is part of a growing body of research suggesting that many traditional ideas about aging may need overhauling.

For example, an article in the January issue of Scientific American examining the "oldest old" people presents surprising evidence that people in their late nineties or older often are healthier and more robust than those 20 years younger.

The number of Americans 100 years old or older grew by 160 percent during the 1980s. By the year 2050, between 500,000 and four million Americans will be centenarians. Yet the common idea that advancing age inevitably leads to extreme deterioration -- and a consequent burden on health care resources -- may be too pessimistic. In fact, the reverse may be true. As researchers learn more about the aging process it appears that many people have the potential to live active, healthy lives well beyond the biblically allotted threescore and ten. Writes author Thomas T. Perls: "The discovery that many people over age 95 are in good shape may mean that future planning for the health care of the oldest old will need to be revised."

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