- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2000

The twang of Eddie Rabbitt's "I Love a Rainy Night" comes from the tape player, and Lola Washington is on her feet. She leads the line-dancing class at the Reston-Herndon Senior Center in its finale, a dance the participants call the barroom stomp. The women turn and shuffle, sway and stamp their feet. They are breaking a sweat, as intended.
Mrs. Washington, who also is an avid tap-dancer, will teach another class tomorrow. She is 82, older than most of her students at the senior center.
"I exercise every day," she says. "I started dancing at 70. It took my blood pressure down. Now I just take a little medication."
Mrs. Washington is a prime example of the elderly in the new millennium. Not only is life longer than those in past generations, it is healthier and more active, too.
Life expectancy has increased 25 years during the past century, to about age 75. That worried experts who thought the United States would have a huge segment of the population that was not only old, but frail. However, several recent studies have shown that not only are senior citizens living longer, they are living better.
"We thought we would see an increasing burden of disability as people were saved from dying by modern medicine but not necessarily cured," says Richard Suzman, associate director of the National Institute on Aging's behavioral and social research program.
Mr. Suzman and others in his field have been pleasantly surprised that that is not necessarily the case.
In the early 1980s, Duke University researchers predicted that in the 1990s and beyond, 8.3 million Americans would be living with functional disabilities. When they evaluated the situation in the mid-1990s, they found the number was 7.1 million.
The same researchers also noted recently that there have been declines in nursing home stays and declines every year for the past 30 in heart disease and vascular disease (such as stroke and high blood pressure), two major contributors to seniors' death and disability.
"In the middle of this century, cancer, heart disease and stroke were lethal diseases," says Eric Stallard, a researcher with the Duke University Center for Demographic Studies. "We have seen major, major declines in the death rates from those diseases. The reasonable conclusion is because of diagnosis, treatment and prevention."
A recent study by researchers at Loyola University in Chicago also showed that the "oldest old" the segment of the population age 85 and older also are faring well. The study, published in the Jan. 26 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that seniors ages 85 and older have made significant gains in quality of life.
Researchers at Loyola University in Chicago compared data from nearly 10,000 elderly people in 1986 and 6,700 people who died in 1993. Among their conclusions for the over-85 group: Nursing home stays were down 12 percent; the percentage of people who needed assistance in daily activities such as walking, bathing and dressing were down an average of 9.3 percent for men and 7.4 percent for women; and cognitive impairments were down by an average of 7 percent for both.
"The question we wanted to answer was, 'Is quality of life better, or are people spending those golden years just sitting in a chair?'" says Dr. Richard Cooper, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Loyola and a lead author of the study. "People are living longer, and now we are finding that many of them seem to be living in better health."
All of these trends need to be taken into consideration as health care experts plan how to proceed over the next generation, when there will be record numbers of elderly people in America.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans older than 65, about 34 million people, or 13 percent of the population in 1996, will double over the next 30 years. The number older than 85, currently about about 3.7 million people, is projected to rise to 8.5 million over that time.

Living a long, healthy life

On paper, it is fairly easy to see why people are living longer and better. Preventive medicine, better access to health care through Medicare and public health initiatives that have eradicated fatal communicable disease and improved medical technology and medication all play a part, Dr. Cooper says.
"If I had to guess, I would say 60 to 70 percent of it is because of better preventive lifestyle, and 30 percent is because of better health care," he says. "People are getting the message. They are not smoking; they are eating better, taking their medications."
The real phenomenon isn't as easily defined. Living a long, healthy life also depends on factors such as genetics, attitude and staying mentally and physically active.
Even education plays a role, Mr. Suzman says. In 1993, 60 percent of the 65-and-over population had a high school diploma or more education than that. Eighty-seven percent of baby boomers, the future elderly wave, have a high school diploma or education beyond that.
"The gap between higher education and low education and life expectancy is about seven years," Mr. Suzman says. "Formal education has an enormous impact. It could be the better educated have better knowledge of the fundamentals of how to maintain health. Or they could have better access to jobs that provide health care. Or it could be that formal education has an impact on the physical structure of the brain."

Attitude and activity

Being independent, being physically active and making connections with others are the intangibles of a long, healthy life, many seniors say.
"I'm legally blind, so I live with my sister, who is 89," says 83-year-old Mattie Seyer of Fairfax. "I intend on being independent until I am 100. I come [to the Reston-Herndon center] to do ceramics. I made a pot and send it to Hillary Clinton. I go to church. I never slow down."
Andrew DeVoe, 94, also of Fairfax, comes to the Reston-Herndon center almost daily. Playing pool and participating in a book club complement his longevity genes, he says.
"I had two sisters who lived into their 90s," he says. "You wonder where the time goes, but I feel pretty good."
Joyce Noe, 70, of Vienna, says she is "having the time of my life." When her grandmother was 70, Mrs. Noe says, she just sat in a rocking chair. In Mrs. Noe's opinion, 70 today is what 60 even 50 was a generation ago.
"I walk 20 miles a week," she says. "I line dance. I take an exercise class twice a week. I play doubles tennis my partner is 86. I cut my own grass. I keep my own house. I am a lunatic."
Actually, seniors such as Mrs. Noe are quite smart in making contributions to their own health, Mr. Suzman says.
"Research by the National Institute on Aging has shown that activities in general, whether social or mental, such as playing cards, have a fairly significant impact on maintenance of health," he says. "If someone asked what is the most effective anti-aging drug developed over the last 10 or 15 years, it is probably physical exercise. Moderate amounts of aerobic exercise actually improve complex thinking and mental processes."
Anne Ball, a 75-year-old from McLean, says her three dance classes a week keep her mind and body working.
"Exercise keeps the synapses together," she says. "It keeps your joints and your mind lubricated. I have some health problems, but I don't dwell on them. Historically speaking, 60 or 65 used to be old. It is not now. Old is a state of mind."

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