"No one thing contributes to healthy aging," says Peg Krach, associate professor in Purdue's School of Nursing. "One of the big points of doing the study was to learn about healthy aging from those who are doing it fairly well. These 'master survivors' are our teachers."
Krach and her colleagues studied 50 people who had fairly strong mental capabilities and who were living in their own or relatives' homes. They interviewed 34 women and 16 men. The mean age was 89; the oldest subject was 97.
The study found that these factors had a correlation to healthy aging:
"Many of these people are still active socially," says Krach, who has been studying the elderly for 12 years. "For example, one 96-year-old man said he goes to every function at his church."
The subjects also said rolling with life's changes was important, Krach says.
"Many of them have lost children and spouses," she says. "One 97-year-old said, 'I've lived through many changes, so the next change is not a great fear for me. Why should I be afraid of it?'"
When asked to evaluate their health, 96 percent said their physical health was fair to excellent, and 56 percent said it was the same as or better than five years ago.
One finding that surprised her, Krach says, was that the subjects took about half as many prescribed medications as other studies on aging have reported, and their use of over-the-counter drugs was very low. The average subject in the Purdue study took three different prescribed drugs and one over-the-counter medication daily.
Although many of the participants in the study had health problems such as arthritis, hypertension and heart trouble, Krach says, they seemed to have accepted those problems gracefully.
"Interestingly, more than 90 percent of the subjects reported these illnesses didn't bother them," she says. "There were no instances of panic about physical deterioration."
A second surprising result, she says, was the strong mental health of the subjects. Only 11 percent had mild or moderate depression.
"These individuals rarely felt worried or lonely or were dissatisfied with life," she says. "The oldest old are no more at risk for depression than are young adults."
The subjects also said that having relationships outside the family was important. Fifty-four percent of them talked daily with people who were not part of their families. In addition, many said they could rely on neighbors to help when needed.
Spirituality -- defined in the study as a sense of purpose and satisfaction about one's existence and belief in a higher being -- also played an important role, Krach says, with all of the subjects saying they believed in God. Many also pointed to the significance of certain themes they had practiced throughout their lives, such as taking an interest in others or being a good listener.
While all of the subjects were able to live at home, 72 percent had trouble doing at least one of four main daily activities: housework, shopping, personal grooming and transportation. Spouses and members of the immediate family, especially daughters, provided the bulk of the long-term care.
"Their greatest fear was losing their home and being placed in a nursing home," Krach says. "The ability to maintain control seems to be another important characteristic of healthy aging."
Krach says the study shows that people shouldn't fear growing really old.
"The whole aging process is looked at as a disease rather than a growth period," Krach says. "Older age is another transition in life."
The study also shows the need for society and health-care givers to provide particular services to meet the needs of this segment of the population.
"If we can provide more of the daily services they needed, such as grocery shopping, we can keep these people in their homes longer, have a much happier old-old population and save taxpayer money," she says.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.5 percent of the population is over 80, with that figure expected to increase to 5 percent by the year 2025. It's the fastest-growing segment of the population, Krach says.
Krach presented results of the study at an international nursing research conference, "Opening the Doors to Home Care Nursing," in Padua, Italy, this spring. She says the project is continuing and next will focus on people aged 85 and older in rural areas.
Other Purdue researchers on the study were Sharon DeVaney, assistant professor of consumer sciences and retailing; Colleen DeTurk, assistant professor of nursing; and Mary Helen Zink, associate professor of nursing.
Writer: News Service, (765) 494-2096
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