New insights into 90-year-olds show we need better knowledge

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With future Australians expected to live well into their 90s, Deakin University researchers have questioned if we really have our finger on the pulse of the health needs of this growing generation of very elderly people.

Based on insights from her own research, Professor Julie Pasco, the head of Deakin Medical School’s Epi-Centre for Healthy Ageing, believes we do not yet know enough about the health of nonagenarians to adequately support current and future generations of 90-year-olds.

“Despite the increase in longevity in our ageing population, the inclusion of very elderly participants in health studies is limited,” says Prof Pasco, who is also lead investigator of the Geelong Osteoporosis Study.

“Most of the health advice given to those in their 90s is based on what we know about 70- and 80-year-olds. What our research tells us is that we can’t assume that 90-year-olds have the same lifestyle habits and health needs as those 10—20 years younger.

“It is therefore important and timely to involve elderly participants in health studies. They are the ones with the power to inform decision making and help shape health recommendations for our ever expanding ageing population.”

Research on the health and wellbeing of nonagenarian women published by Prof Pasco and her team this year pointed to a gap in what we know about the health of these very elderly Australians.

The researchers analysed the data collected during a 10 year follow up of participants in the Geelong Osteoporosis Study – which has been monitoring the health of people in the Geelong region for more than 20 years.

Among the 14 female nonagenarians in the study, most were of a normal weight, nearly a quarter (3) were underweight, around a third (4) were overweight and one was obese, a third (5) had high blood pressure and over two-thirds (9) had osteoporosis. None of the women smoked or had fallen in the previous year.

Prof Pasco says that, on a number of measures, the health of the women in the study differed to what might be expected based on advice for the 70/80+ age group.

“The mean BMI for the nonagenarians was lower than previously reported for women aged 80 years and over and the mean percentage of body fat was also less.

“It was also surprising to see that none of the nonagenarians had fallen in the previous year as it has been reported that round one-third of community-dwelling people over 75 years experiences a fall each year,” she says.

“Nonagenarians are also less active and their daily activities differ from 70/80-year-olds therefore the risk factors for injury or dying among the younger elderly are not necessarily going to be a problem for the very elderly.

“We are delighted with the sustained contribution of the 90-year-old women whose support has allowed us to monitor the health and wellbeing of Geelong residents as they enter different phases of their health journey.

“Let’s hope that there are further studies involving the very elderly so that we can be prepared to support the growing generation of 90-year-olds.”

The research, ‘Characteristics of Female Nonagenarian Participants in an Observational Health Study’, was published in the Journal of Gerontology & Geriatrics Research.

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