PITTSBURGH, PA. — During a 75-minute fitness routine of stretching, pulling, kicking and more in his room in the Sherwood Oaks retirement community in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, Melvin Judkis sometimes naps without warning during a soothing, therapeutic lull.
He might be forgiven for that — the retired electrical engineer recently turned 98. Judkis is the oldest among dozens of clients around the region of wellness coach Nick Majoris, who visits him twice weekly. Judkis is mostly in fine shape, feeling fit after 27 years of their work — and friendship — together.
“We got started so long ago that it just feels natural now to keep it up, and it makes me feel better,” Judkis said after spending a couple minutes tugging on handles of a bungee cord gripped in the middle by Majoris, who is 75.
Judkis, whose room is decorated with bright paintings by his late wife, Edna, and others, rebounded within a couple of days last year from life-threatening pneumonia. He uses a walker to traverse the corridors of the facility for up to a mile a day.
“Everybody wants the same thing — to live a little longer and keep out of the nursing home,” said Judkis, whose posture is bent from back arthritis but who has few health complaints.
Findings of two recent independent studies help explain and support the nonagenarian’s ability to continue taking care of most of his own needs, as well as his recovery from serious illness. Judkis was not a participant in either study, but hundreds of Pittsburgh residents were among thousands of seniors nationally whose healthy habits late in life point toward positive benefits.
One study, using data collected by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and three other sites over a quarter century, showed that older adults with healthy lifestyles not only live longer than their peers, but also have fewer years of disability before dying.
The second study, in which the university’s researchers assisted, found that people who started at least a moderate regimen of walking for exercise late in life rebounded from serious health conditions with a far shorter period of disability than did non-exercisers.
Such findings might seem only logical, but due to their broad size and duration, the studies provide some of the best evidence yet of the impact on people 65 or 75 years old paying attention to exercise and other recommended behaviors.
“There’s been conflicting data on whether people are just living longer and we’re just prolonging the period of time they’re in poor health,” said Dr. Anne Newman, a University of Pittsburgh geriatrician and epidemiologist involved in both studies. Now, she said, both studies “illustrate how much capacity we have to retain benefits as we get older. . . . It’s not ever too late to start.”
Newman and colleagues collected data over 25 years on 5,888 individuals 65 and older in the Cardiovascular Health Study. Participants were asked at the outset about their various lifestyle behaviors, then were monitored to assess whether they had become disabled and how long their period of disability was before death.
The findings were published in November’s Journal of the American Geriatrics Society by lead author Mini Jacob, a former University of Pittsburgh doctoral student now at Boston University. The number of disabled years preceding death — meaning the period in which participants had trouble with basic functions such as walking, bathing, dressing or eating — averaged 4.5 years for women and 2.9 years for men. But there was significant variance from the average, depending on a person’s habits at the time they entered the study.
For example, a white man categorized as being in the healthiest lifestyle group spent two years disabled compared to 3.7 years for someone with poor habits. Smokers, as an overall subset, had 3.1 fewer years of able-bodied life, which was the sharpest difference among lifestyle traits measured. Being obese added 0.7 years to the time spent with a disability.
Such differences in “health span” — the years free of disability — are in addition to people living longer from living healthy, an asset that has been more widely researched and accepted. In general, Newman said, people entering the study at an average age of 72 who had unhealthy lifestyles could count on spending just 60 percent of their remaining years free of disability, compared to 80 percent for people documented at the outset with healthy behaviors.
“We were interested in the lifestyle factors because those are modifiable,” Newman said. “We see a big difference in people who have healthy lifestyles by all measures. It’s not just a matter of influencing longevity — it’s a matter of influencing quality of life. It might seem obvious, but it hasn’t been obvious from previous reports.”
The other new findings supporting older adults’ exercise were recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by Yale University geriatrician Thomas Gill. More than 1,600 individuals between the ages of 70 and 89 who were sedentary at the start of the study were evaluated for their experience with disability.
If they were put in a structured walking-exercise program for the next 3 1⁄2 years, they spent 25 percent less time with a disability than those who had received only some health education. The walkers were less likely to suffer a disability and more likely to recover from it and recover faster.
“It’s an important part of the active life expectancy story,” relevant because people want to not only live longer but live well during those extra years, said Dr. Jack Guralnik, a co-investigator on that study and a University of Maryland professor of epidemiology and public health.
“We don’t know yet what’s happening over time in the population and what will happen in the future,” Guralnik said. “It’s good news if we can be sure the population would just look like the one that’s labeled as having healthy lifestyles.”