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Active Seniors can Benefit from being Even More Active

Update Date: May 05, 2014 04:07 PM EDT

Even though old age might come with reduced physical and mental health, several studies in the past have found that maintaining good activity levels can improve overall well-being. In a new study, researchers examined the heart health of seniors over the age of 65 who are active. They found that if active seniors boosted their activity levels, they could reduce their risk of heart attack even more.

For this study, the researchers monitored the health of 985 adults who had an average age of 71 during the baseline of the study. The adults were a part of the community-based Cardiovascular Health study, which is a large study examining the risk factors of heart disease in seniors over the age of 65. The researchers used a 24-hour heart monitor to assess the participants' heart health over the time span of five years. The team specifically looked at heart rate variability, which is the time difference measured between a single heartbeat and the next during daily life.

"These small differences are influenced by the health of the heart and the nervous system that regulates the heart," said Luisa Soares-Miranda, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and the Faculty of Sport at the University of Porto in Portugal. "Early abnormalities in this system are picked up by changes in heart rate variability, and these changes predict the risk of future heart attacks and death."

The researchers found that seniors who led more active lifestyles had better heart rate variability. Throughout the five years, if seniors increased their walking distance or their walking pace, their heart rate variability improved in comparison to seniors who reduced their walking distances or lowered their walking speed. When the researchers compared the highest and the lowest levels of activity, they found the most active people had an estimated 11 percent reduced risk of heart attack or sudden cardiac death.

"Any physical activity is better than none, but maintaining or increasing your activity has added heart benefits as you age. Our results also suggest that these certain beneficial changes that occur may be reduced when physical activity is reduced." Soares-Miranda said in the press release. "So if you feel comfortable with your usual physical activity, do not slow down as you get older - try to walk an extra block or walk at a faster pace. If you're not physically active, it is never too late to start."

The study was published in the American Heart Association's (AHA) journal, Circulation.

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