Lack of social connections and feelings of loneliness and depression raise your risk of premature death more than obesity. {photo: Bigstock]

Healthy ageing has little to do with age

25 July, 2016

Natural Health News — When it comes to maintaining health as we get older, age means little and obesity may not be the biggest threat, according to a new US study.

Factors such as loneliness, depression and having broken a bone recently are more likely to predict a person’s risk of dying prematurely, say researchers at the University of Chicago.

“The healthiest people were obese and robust,” said the study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS), which found that 22% of older Americans fit that definition of good health despite higher obesity and blood pressure.

They had fewer organ system diseases, better mobility, sensory function and psychological health than others.

They were also the least likely to die or become incapacitated five years into the study, which involved 3,000 people aged 57 to 85.

What you need to know

» Researchers in the US are calling for a more comprehensive view of what threatens health as we age.

» In a new study they found that loneliness, depression and even a history of broken bones was more influential in term of raising the risk of premature death than obesity.

» The researchers say to understand health and longevity a shift of focus is needed from strict disease management, to overall well-being across many areas.

What is ‘healthy’?

Looking more deeply into what raise our risk of premature death, the researchers also uncovered new classes of people at twice the risk of dying or becoming incapacitated in five years.

They include those of normal weight who face one key health problem such as thyroid disease, anaemia or ulcers, those who had broken a bone since age 45, and those with poor mental health.

The unhealthiest people, they found, were those with uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure, and who often face challenges getting around and performing daily tasks.

“Instead of policies focused on reducing obesity as a much lamented health condition, greater support for reducing loneliness among isolated older adults or restoring sensory functions would be more effective in enhancing health and wellbeing in the older population,” said co-author Edward Laumann of the University of Chicago.

Indeed there is previous evidence that loneliness is worse for health than obesity.

Although cancer caused 24% of deaths among people over 55, it “seemed to develop randomly with respect to other organ system diseases,” the study said.

Challenging conventional wisdom

Obesity has long been considered a leading risk factor for dangerous conditions such as heart attack and stroke. More than a third of Americans – around 79 million people – are considered obese, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, a number of recent studies have suggested that obesity may not be as bad as once thought, and may even offer protective benefits against certain diseases, a phenomenon known as “the obesity paradox.”

Still, current medical wisdom holds that people are healthy if they can avoid heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.

But authors of the new study described a different approach, known as the “comprehensive model” of health and aging, that includes factors such as psychological well-being, sensory function and mobility as essential factors of overall health.

A new model for health

We all know, or have heard stories of, people who are seemingly healthy but who inexplicably dies suddenly.

Using this new lens, about half of those considered healthy under the current medical model actually have “significant vulnerabilities that affect the chances that they die or become incapacitated within five years,” the study said.

“At the same time, some people with chronic disease are revealed as having many strengths that lead to their reclassification as quite healthy, with low risks of death and incapacity.”

The findings suggest that “from a health system perspective, a shift of attention is needed from disease-focused management, such as medications for hypertension or high cholesterol, to overall well-being across many areas,” co-author William Dale said.