Dan Gorfain and his fellow cyclists Howard Sarasohn, Dave Brubaker and Norm Gold could be considered poster boys for the value of active aging. The retirees, the youngest of whom is 67, are fit and energetic, and they believe in playing through aches and pains – and worse.
After they cycled 800 miles together around New Zealand’s south island early in 2010, Gorfain began experiencing shortness of breath and, when they returned home, chest pain.
“It never occurred to me I could have some kind of cardiac condition,” said Gorfain, now 70 and retired from a long career in California state government.
But he did, and just days after returning from their trip, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery.
And then he got back on his bike.
By that September, he was biking once again with his buddies around Lake Tahoe. And this fall the friends plan a long cycling trek through the Pacific Northwest.
Are these resilient and vigorous retirees representative of a new American approach to health in older age? Maybe, experts say, but the progress toward active aging is more subtle than that.
In some ways, the old cliché of the sedentary retirement years has been changed by a more modern trend – that of robust aging, with fit retirees such as Gorfain and his friends blessed with vitality into their 70s and beyond.
In part, the trend reflects goal-oriented baby boomers entering their retirement years with a renewed appreciation for fitness.
“People need to remember there’s never an age or a skill level when you’re too far gone to respond to mobility,” said Dr. Vonda Wright, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center orthopedic surgeon and director of the school’s Performance Research Initiative for Masters Athletes.
“Our bodies are designed to move, to be walking and running until the day we die. We’re not designed to sit. You can make profound changes for your health no matter what your age.”
Her research shows that when people do remain vigorous into their 50s, 60s and 70s – what she calls “prime time” – they can expect to have the same muscle mass they did three decades earlier, as well as high bone-density levels.
“For all the ‘Rest in Peace’ birthday cards people get for their 40th birthdays, we’ve found that people do not start significantly slowing down until they’re 75 years old,” she said.
“I say biology takes over at that age. Their speed starts declining dramatically past 75.”
Older athletes are everywhere: For example, more than 30 percent of participants in this year’s Eppie’s Great Race triathlon on Sacramento, Calif.’s American River Parkway were ages 55 and older, said organizers.
Many senior athletes launch into fitness only in midlife, prodded by doctors telling them they need to shape up, lose weight and get their cholesterol under control. University of Virginia researchers have found that the number of people 55 and older joining health clubs has increased 562 percent since 1987.
Offsetting the trend toward fit and healthy aging, however, are a host of discouraging statistics, which show that even now a startlingly small percentage of older adults are making the effort.
In 2010, not quite 14 percent of people ages 65 to 74 actually engaged in the weekly amount of basic aerobic exercise that doctors recommend, according to National Center for Health Statistics data.
That’s double the percentage from 1998, but it’s far from what health experts would like to see. And coupled with the fact that almost 38 percent of people 65 and older were obese in 2010 – compared with 22 percent in 1994 – the numbers don’t hold overwhelming encouragement about seniors’ health.
Also in 2010, fully one-third of Americans past age 65 reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they got no leisure exercise at all during a typical month.
Forget the challenge of cycling around New Zealand or Tahoe; they didn’t even walk a block.
Researchers know that when older adults do even light amounts of exercise – walking, strength training and working on their balance and flexibility – the result is that they take fewer medications and go to the doctor less often.
They’re less likely to fall. They also end up hospitalized less often and recover more quickly from injury and illness.
It’s a tidy equation: A little exercise equals a lot of benefit for aging adults’ health.
“But it’s something you have to do the rest of your life, even into your 80s and 90s,” said Joan Neide, who heads the California State University, Sacramento, kinesiology department. “It has to be a lifetime commitment to taking care of yourself.”