Ben Magsamen is no average senior citizen.
Magsamen, a co-founder of the Orthopedic Center of the Rockies, continues to remain extremely physically active – even at 74 years old.
“When the weather is good, I bicycle 20 or 40 miles a day,” the former surgeon said. “Three days a week I lift weights for half an hour and then do cardio on the machines.”
As the baby-boomer generation hits retirement age, CSU researchers are studying the science of aging.
“By 2010, many baby boomers will reach 65,” said Brian Tracy, an assistant professor for the department of health and exercise science. “In terms of aging trends, we are currently experiencing the graying of America.”
Tracy works in the Neuromuscular Function Laboratory. As a faculty affiliate at the university’s Center on Aging, he is interested in learning more about changes that affect a significant portion of the population.
“We conduct studies to try and understand why elderly people are weaker and not able to control their muscles as well,” Tracy said.
Tracy and his colleagues say the elderly experience less postural steadiness. As a result, they suffer from an increased risk of falls. One ongoing study that measures ankle muscle control in terms of the ability to stand straight is designed to address that issue.
Tracy says there are things younger people can do to ensure their health later on and lessen the effects of aging.
“People age in different ways, but we are dealing with the plasticity of the system,” he said. “If you give the body a strong enough stimulus, it is able to adapt and change in beneficial ways. This translates into functional improvement.”
Due to medical advancements, people are living longer. For this reason, the implications of aging research, Tracy says, could be huge.
If elderly people are able to remain independent longer, the costs of nursing homes could be reduced by millions of dollars, alleviating some of the burden families and Medicare face.
Despite these benefits, the National Institute on Aging, the government body in charge of funding research, spends only $1 billion a year on research.
Tracy advocates strength training, including martial arts, yoga, aerobics and regular vigorous physical activity.
“It’s the single most important thing people can do as they get older,” he said.
Besides exercise, Tracy recommends making healthy choices.
“Everybody can’t keep up the typical college lifestyle, else they would die young,” he said. “College is college. Employing moderation in all things is important. If you eat a galloon of ice cream regularly, you’re going to increase your risk of heart disease.”
Maintaining a good diet is especially helpful as people age, Tracy added. Avoiding weight gain is essential.
“As you get older, your metabolism gets slower,” he said. “You become what you eat.”
CSU research assistant Tyler Anstett agrees with Tracy, saying exercise now can slow the effects of aging.
“Stuff breaks down as you get older. The purpose of our research is to confirm it does,” Anstett said. “We think we are showing that exercise can prevent some of that loss. You can’t stop getting old, but you can slow it down.
And for Magsamen, who is proud to say he’s climbed all of Colorado’s 14,000 feet-plus mountain peaks, age is just a number.
“I believe exercise is the most important preventative measure against the deterioration of muscle,” he said.
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