Fit elders are rewriting the assumptions about aging and activity Bush's sky dive highlights seniors' vigor attitude


Though inspirational to some, former President George Bush's sky dive over the Arizona desert last week at age 72 was less on the leading edge and more part of a trailing afterburn. Many other elder-heroes have been there and done that and much more.

Why, just last June, Al Dietzel, an executive at The Limited, the retailing conglomerate, celebrated his 65th birthday with his own parachute jump -- which came before 18 holes of golf (a 93, with no cart) and after two sets of singles tennis, a 180-pound bench press and a two-mile run at a nine-minute-a-mile pace.

"I'm stronger at 65, 66, than I ever was in my life," he says.

For his 66th birthday he is planning, among other feats, a 190-pound-plus bench press, three miles at his nine-minute pace and a six-mile kayak trip ending at the Statue of Liberty.

Kenneth Cooper, founder of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, recalls being taught back in medical school that vigorous exercise over 40 increased the risk of a heart attack.

Now, at 66, he still runs or race-walks several times a week, lifts weights, skis at least two weeks a year and scales a 13,000-foot peak every summer in the Colorado Rockies.

He says the effects of aging can be not only slowed but actually reversed through a diet-and-fitness regimen that strengthens bones and builds muscle mass. "We're eventually going to rewrite the textbooks on aging," he adds.

The newfound capabilities of the elderly are forcing the revision of a lot else: health and demographic studies, rules of athletic competition, marketing plans and -- soon perhaps -- assumptions about geezers that permeate popular culture.

Aging studies have been more apt to measure a duffer's ability to dress himself than clock his performance in a triathlon, so as yet it's hard to definitively gauge a trend toward sport and risk-taking among the elderly.

But even existing surveys suggest a more active elderly population, because as a group the elderly have become healthier and more functional in daily life.

The Duke University Center for Demographic Studies -- which samples Americans over 65 -- has noted a 15 percent drop from 1982 to 1994 in what it calls chronic disability rates -- measuring things like the ability to feed oneself.

Now the center is beginning to track activities such as tennis, bicycling and long-distance running -- although "jumping out of airplanes is beyond what I would measure," says Professor Kenneth G. Manton.

He attributes higher activity rates more to healthier, smarter living than to better medical treatment. And in fact would-be "super seniors" are forewarned that they are not indestructible. Bush took his doctor along as a precaution.

And though Cooper once ran marathons, he now says that running long distances leaves older people vulnerable to injuries that outweigh the added benefits.

Woe to the elderly who try skiing at Colorado's high altitudes without having followed an exercise program that went beyond hoisting second helpings onto their plates.

"You'd be surprised at the number of heart attacks that occur in Colorado," Cooper says. "It's primarily older people who conk out."

But many who began exercising when young now continue throughout their lives, while others who never dreamed of bungie-jumping are pondering the actuarial probabilities and thinking, oh, what the heck.

Swimming, track and bodybuilding are only some of the sports that have strong national programs for older athletes.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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