Tip Sheet: Think About Your Health In April

April 02, 1999

Think about your health in April: The following story ideas are based on research by George A. Kaplan, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and director of the Michigan Initiative on Inequalities in Health (MIIH). MIIH is a public health-based research group looking for the causes, consequences and remedies for inequalities in health. Kaplan is a social epidemiologist who has published more than 130 papers on the role of behavioral, social, psychological and socioeconomic factors in disease prevention and health promotion. Contact Amy Reyes to arrange interviews with Prof. Kaplan.

Add "life" to your years as you age. Disease and illness do not have to be the end result of aging, said U-M School of Public Health Prof. George Kaplan who is author of a chapter of the 1997 book titled, "Public Health and Aging." How healthy and how functional you remain as you age, largely depends on your behavior and other social factors. People who give up smoking and start exercising, significantly increase their chances of living longer and living better. For example, a 1989 Kaplan study showed that elderly smokers had a 76 percent increased risk of death compared with those who never smoked. Kaplan has also showed that men and women 60 years old and older who infrequently exercise have a 40 percent higher mortality risk than those who exercise more. Also, those who had little contact with friends and relatives and did not belong to a church, had an approximately 30 percent increased risk of death. The chapter in the book is titled, "Behavioral, Social and Socioenvironmental Factors; Adding Years to Life and Life to Years."

The causes of frailty in old age. Frailty does not have to be a symptom of old age. Frailty is actually the result of years of unhealthy living, according to a 1998 study co-authored by U-M Public Health Prof. George Kaplan published in the Journal of Gerontology. The study is based on a survey of 574 people between the ages of 65 and 102. One-fourth of those who participated in the study were classified as frail, which was defined as having some form of physical, nutritional, cognitive and/or sensory impairment. "Frailty is often seen as an inevitable consequence of aging. People believe that aging is invariably related to disease, disability and dementia," Kaplan said. Kaplan and colleague William J. Strawbridge, a research scientist at the Human Population Laboratory in Berkeley, found the cumulative experience (three decades) of heavy drinking, smoking, lack of physical activity and depression and social isolation and poor health led to higher rates of being frail in old age. People who were consistently physically inactive had twice the risk of becoming frail when they reached age 65 or older.

Years of economic hardship can take its toll on you in your golden years. A 1997 study co-authored by U-M School of Public Health Prof. George Kaplan shows that being poor throughout your life can lead to poorer physical, psychological and cognitive functioning. The study is based on data collected from more than 1,000 people who were on average 65 years old. The data is based on their incomes from 1965, 1974 and 1983. Those who faced economic hardships (less than 200 percent of the poverty level) throughout those years were more likely to have difficulty successfully accomplishing daily activities many of us take for granted, such as cooking, shopping, managing money, walking, eating, dressing and using the toilet. Those with the longest history of economic hardship were 4.56 times more likely to suffer from depression compared with those subjects with no history of economic hardship. The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and is co-authored by U-M School of Public Health Prof. John W. Lynch and Sarah J. Shema of the Human Population Laboratory, Public Health Institute, Berkeley, Calif.

University of Michigan

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