Do you want the good news or the bad news first? OK - the bad news. Every eight years you become twice as likely to die. Yup, you heard me. I came across this cheery little fact (derived from insurance companies' actuarial tables) buried in an article describing how solidly middle-aged people are now being marketed products for "middle youth."
But no matter what euphemism marketers use, the very hard truth is that in the remaining 28 years of life that I'll be lucky to live if I live to an American woman's average life expectancy of 79.5 I can also expect that the odds of my dying will increase dramatically the older I get.
Whoa. Did I just use a specific number of years to define how much longer I might have to be on the planet? And a number less than the 30 years my husband and I have already spent together? What a seriously sobering thought.
Even though I usually find it helpful to think clearly about statistical probabilities, this one is a doozy. But instead of curling up in a ball and freaking out, or ignoring the reality of it, I decided that naming that hard number was, in fact, and somewhat counterintuitively, deeply clarifying. It drove home for me how important it is to take as good care of myself as possible, so I can savor all that I can of the remainder of my time here (and maybe beat the odds by a few bonus years).
Ready for the good news now?
The last few decades don't have to be bummer. There really are things that can improve the quality of those years, and they are neither expensive nor daunting.
The Alliance for Aging Research recommends lots of physical movement. Their data indicate that activity represents the greatest promise for reducing the risks of chronic disease. They project that 160 million Americans - half the country and more than half the adults - will suffer from some kind of chronic illness by 2040. So it looks like most of us need to get out there and move. Right now.
In the context of my recent statistical wake-up call, I thought it might be helpful to review a few of the known and obvious things that exercise will do for you:
- Improve your circulation, which will help your blood pressure and help prevent further heart disease. For a healthy heart, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 15 minutes of aerobic exercise at least three days per week, during which you should reach a heart rate of at least 60 percent of your maximal rate (which is 220 minus your current age). And walking 30 minutes each day is a great start.
- Build your bones and help prevent osteoporosis. In a recent study of women aged 50 to 70, the women who strength-trained gained 1 percent more bone density in the hip and spine, while the group that did not lift weights lost 2.5 percent bone density. Those who trained had strength increases between 35 percent and 76 percent above the control group, and improvements in physical balance averaging 14 percent.
- Help keep your weight under control, which will help prevent or control Type II diabetes.
And the benefits of exercise are not purely physical. Scientific American Mind reported in their June/July issue that according to Scott Small, a neurologist at Columbia University, "physical exercise might be a very effective way to ameliorate age-related memory decline."
Need more encouragement? A fifth of the runners who finished the Boston Marathon this year were 50 or older, and the 50-and-up entrants are growing by 10 percent a year. I've never run farther than five miles at any one time, but I'm thinking about setting a goal to run the New York City Marathon in 2008. Why not? Time's short.