Dispelling aging myths
Most of us are familiar with the old adage, "You're only as old as you feel." The Pearce Community Center line dancers test this notion in Chillicothe each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning as the 35 women kick, twirl, and grapevine through an hour's worth of the more than 100 dance routines in their repertoire. Since the 1980s, the group has grown steadily, with dancers ranging in age from early 60s to 85. While the focus is on the dancing, they accomplish much more. They celebrate holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries, and support each other through illness, loss of spouses, and even the loss of group members.
I had the opportunity to spend time with the line dancers, as they were a part of a two-year study on the effects of physical activity on several variables, including gait and balance. Along with my colleague Dr. Dawn Hall and students JAIME KIRBY '07 DPT '10, JESSICA NEWMAN '07 DPT '10, ELLIOT COHEE, DPT '10, KYLE JOHNSON, DPT '10, and ASHLEE PIERSON, DPT '10, I studied how these variables changed over a year for the dancers, as well as for groups of women who walk for exercise and those who do not exercise regularly.
While the dancing group did not demonstrate abilities superior to the walking group, both exercise groups differed from the sedentary group in two important ways: They were able to spend more time on one foot, and they demonstrated greater consistency with the length of their steps.
Why are these findings significant? They suggest overall greater stability with walking, thus potentially decreasing the risk for falling. While these findings are valuable from a research standpoint, the study also was valuable because it exposed my students to a group of people who dispel more myths with their actions than I could ever hope to with my lectures.
On the first day of the geriatrics unit in the lifespan development course, I give a quiz on the myths of aging. By the end of the class, we have started to chip away at the biases that some students hold regarding older adults. They learn that depression, dementia, and falling are not normal consequences of aging, but serious threats to quality of life that they are charged to address as health care providers and patient advocates. Later in the unit, I test the students on how many times they can rise from a chair without using their arms and stand on one foot. Many are surprised to hear that a healthy 70-year-old can stand from an armless chair at least 12 times in 30 seconds, and can stand on one foot for at least 10 seconds.
They learn that having their geriatric clients kick their legs while sitting in a chair and march in place are not sufficient to promote optimal aging and prevent age-related decline in function. Multiple studies have demonstrated that older adults, even those in their 90s, achieve strength gains similar to those of young adults with a moderate or high-intensity strength-training program. Numerous benefits may be achieved with a challenging exercise program, including decreased fall risk, decreased risk of vertebral fracture, decreased depression, and increased independence for functional activities, such as walking and climbing stairs.
Many underestimate the abilities of older adults, and even discourage them from doing anything that may be difficult. My goal as an educator is for my students to enter the health care field armed with the knowledge and attitude to challenge these individuals to their full functional potential.