In 1915, the average life expectancy for a man was 52.5 years and 56.8 years for women.
Fast forward 100 years and the average life expectancy has increased by more than two decades. In 2012 — the most recent year for which numbers are available — U.S. life expectancy increased to an all-time high of 78.8 years, with rates of 81.2 years for women and 76.4 years for men.
In the past, people expected to grow old, get feeble and retire to the front porch in the rocking chair. For ages, people sought the fountain of youth that would change this "fact."
While the body changes as people age, with a loss of bone and muscle mass and a decrease in metabolism, recent research has shown that there may just be a "fountain of youth" designed to keep people vital into their 70s, 80s and beyond.
The "secret" is physical activity.
In the September issue of the "Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons," a review of research on athletes aged 65 and older, evidence shows improvement in musculoskeletal and health that can minimize or even delay the effects of aging.
"An increasing amount of evidence demonstrates that we can modulate age-related decline in the musculoskeletal system," said study author and orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Bryan G. Vopat. "A lot of the deterioration we see with aging can be attributed to a more sedentary lifestyle instead of aging itself."
Physical activity can have a positive affect on maintaining bone density, increasing muscle mass, ligament and tendon function and cartilage volume.
The literature recommends a combined regimen of physical activity including resistance, endurance, flexibility and balance training.
Resistance training can increase muscle strength and build lean muscle and bone mass more consistently than aerobic activity alone. Moderately intense resistance regimens also decrease fat mass. Sustained lower and upper body resistance training bolsters bone density and reduces the risk of strains, sprains and acute fractures.
Endurance training promotes heart health, increases oxygen consumption and has been linked to other benefits, including less accumulation of fat mass, maintenance of muscle strength and cartilage volume.
Flexibility and balance are recommended to help older adults maintain a range of motion, optimize performance and limit injury.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, an agency of the National Institutes of Health, advises that participating in some exercises will give seniors more bang for their buck.
For example, water aerobics with weight help provide both strengthening and aerobic benefits. Yoga combines balance, flexibility and strengthening.
"Choose what you like to do — some physical activity is better than none," the NIDDK advises.
The agency recommends several safety tips:
• Ask your health care provider about ways you can safely increase the amount of physical activity you do now.
• Take time to warm up and cool down.
• Start slowly and build up to more intense activity.
• Wear a sturdy pair of shoes.
• Stop if you have pain, become dizzy or feel short of breath.
• Drink water.
The National Institute on Aging offers the Go4Life campaign, with easy-to-use materials on health and aging. They offer tips on how to create an exercise program to work for you.
For more information, visit go4life.nia.nih.gov.