CHICAGO – One of the largest, longest studies of aging found one more reason to stay trim and active: It could greatly raise your odds of living to at least age 85.
In fact, chances of being healthy in old age are better than even for people who at mid-life have normal blood pressure, good grip strength and several other physical characteristics associated with being fit and active.
These include normal levels of blood glucose and fats in the blood called triglycerides — both also associated with avoiding excess calories and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
Other habits long linked with good health and well-being — avoiding smoking and excess alcohol, and being married — also improved chances of surviving well into the 80s.
The study involved 5,820 Japanese-American men from the Hawaiian island of Oahu, who were followed for up to 40 years, but the researchers said the results likely apply to women and men of other ethnic heritage, too.
"There appears to be a lot we can do about modifying our risk and increasing the odds for aging more healthfully," said lead author Dr. Bradley Willcox, a scientist at the Pacific Health Research Institute in Honolulu.
"It's good news because it really gives you something to zero in on if we want to be healthy at older age," Willcox said.
The results appear in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study shows "that you can still live healthy until age 85 if you live right," said Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of preventive cardiology at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.
Most factors the researchers identified as contributing to longevity have long been associated with healthy living but the study does a good job of "putting it together in one package" and showing the combined benefits, said Lavie, who was not involved in the research.
While Japanese-American men tend to be thinner and healthier than the general U.S. population, Lavie said it makes sense to think that the same factors that influence their survival would also affect other people.
The study notes that people aged 85 and older are the fastest-growing age group in most industrialized countries and are among the largest consumers of health care resources.
Figuring out how to help people remain healthy as they age is thus a major research priority, the study authors said.
It's also a priority for doctors with middle-aged patients who want to know how to survive into old age, said Dr. Gary Schaer, a cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
"This kind of paper directly affects how I take care of patients," Schaer said. "It's a really important study."
Study participants were in their 50s on average when the research began; 3,369 or 58 percent died before age 85. Health was evaluated at the start and then at eight follow-up examinations.
Eleven percent — 655 men — reached a milestone the researchers dubbed "exceptional survival." That was reaching age 85 without any mental or physical impairment, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, Parkinson's disease and diabetes.
The men who had none of nine disease risk factors at mid-life had a nearly 70 percent chance of living to age 85 and a 55 percent chance of reaching the exceptional milestone.
By contrast, those with six or more risk factors at mid-life had a 22 percent chance of living to age 85 and a less than 10 percent chance of exceptional survival.
The nine mid-life risk factors were: being overweight, meaning a body-mass index of 25 or more; having high blood glucose levels, which can lead to diabetes; having high triglyceride levels, which contribute to heart disease; having high blood pressure; having low grip strength — unable to squeeze at least 86 pounds of pressure with a handheld device; smoking; consuming three or more alcoholic drinks daily; not graduating from high school; and being unmarried.
"These risk factors can be easily measured in a clinical setting and are, for the most part, modifiable," the researchers said.
The study was paid for by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Hawaii Community Foundation.