Following "healthy" lifestyles may actually not prolong the lives of elderly people, two Harvard doctors have concluded after conducting a statistical analysis.
Dr. Lawrence G. Branch and Dr. Alan M. Jette, both professors of social medicine at the Harvard Medical School, challenged the generally accepted idea that patterns of physical activity and good eating habits help those over 65 to live longer.
The results appeared in this month's issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
"We assumed that those who had a healthier lifestyle would have a lower death rate and we just didn't find it," said Jette yesterday.
"I am suprised and puzzled by the finding," said Branch, himself a marathon runner. "My own values contradict these results," he added.
The doctors conducted a longetudinal study (tracing statistics over time) on 1625 Massachusetts residents older than 65, writing to the participants once every two years. They examined the participants' habits of physical activity, cigarette smoking, hours of sleep, alcohol consumption and number of daily meals in relation to mortality rates, closing the study after five years.
Only female cigarette smokers experienced a higher mortality rate, according to the findings. None of the other factors affected life span. Even male cigarrete smokers experienced no significantly higher mortality rates.
The philosophy that every individual could take responsibility for extending his own life has been popular for many years. Numerous medical studies on the issue have emphasized increasing physical activity, abstaining from cigarettes and practicing proper eating habits as ways to lengthen life expectancy.
In a recent report on health promotion and disease prevention, for example, the U.S. Surgeon General called for a commitment to changing unhealthy lifestyles to extend one's life. The report estimates that, "perhaps as much as half of U.S. mortality in 1976 was due to unhealthy behavior in lifestyle."
Another popular study, conducted by the Human population Laboratory of UCLA, tested five similar health practices and concluded that those persons who followed these healthy habits did in fact achieve a lower mortality rate.
Branch and Jette said they investigated whether these statistics applied to the elderly as well.
"We cannot automatically generalize [statistics relating to the population as a whole] to older people," said Branch.
"Excesses in lifestyle exacts a toll in the middle years, but if an individual survives middle age, then, we think, certain health measures do not apply," he added.
Jette discourages, however, a "live it up, regardless of the consequences" attitude for the elderly. "This was an observational study," he said. "We don't know why the statistics show what they do," he added.
Branch said that subsequent studies are in order. He emphasized that this study did not measure the effect of regular physical exercise, or careful dieting. "I sure hope these factors prolong life," he said.
The doctors also plan to study if the five health practices affect the elderly's likelihood of contracting disabilities.