June 1st, 2010

Table of Contents:

What Is “Old Age”? (Introduction to special issue)

Take One – Chronological, Biological and Functional Age

Take Two – Psychological and Social Age

Take Three – Personal Independence Versus Skilled Care Needs

Take Four – Eugeric Versus Pathogeric Aging

Take Five – Closing Thoughts

Old Age Is… (Humor)

What Is “Old Age”?

by American Senior Fitness Association

When exactly does old age begin? Health care workers, fitness professionals, and laypersons alike might wish to nail down the answer, but it isn’t as simple as counting birthdays. Whereas many older adults may begin referring to themselves as "seniors" as they reach retirement age, their medical status, physical fitness level, psychological health, and social characteristics vary widely from one individual to the next.

This special issue of Experience! delves into the perplexing matter of defining old age. All of the books listed in the discussion below are published by Human Kinetics. The sources named are experts and their works are recommended by the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA)

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Take One – Chronological, Biological and Functional Age

by American Senior Fitness Association

One respected publication that addresses this complex question is the textbook Physical Activity Instruction of Older Adults (2005) in which SFA president Janie Clark wrote the chapter "Designing and Managing Group Conditioning Classes." In a chapter entitled "The Field of Gerokinesiology," co-editors C. Jessie Jones and Debra J. Rose explain the limited nature of relying solely on chronological years to describe old age (for example: young-old 65-74; middle-old 75-84; old-old 85-99; and oldest-old 100-plus). There is simply too much diversity within numerical age categories to form definitive profiles. Jones and Rose then discuss several other indicators of aging, including two we will briefly outline here: biological aging and functional age.

Also called primary aging, biological aging concerns a number of processes in the human body that, over time, result in reduced adaptability, disease, physical and functional declines, disability, and ultimately death. Numerous theories of biological aging — for example: genetic theories which emphasize heredity; damage theories which stress the long-term build-up of cell damage; and other theories — are presently under scientific investigation and debate.

Functional age refers to an individual’s functional fitness level, compared to others of his or her same chronological age and sex (for example: how much and what types of physical activity can one successfully perform? what is the status of one’s cardiovascular system? one’s musculoskeletal system? what are an individual’s capacities and/or limitations in terms of carrying out activities of daily living?). As a good example of gauging functional fitness, Jones and Rose cite influential researcher Waneen W. Spirduso’s well-known Hierarchy of Physical Function. Her publication Physical Dimensions of Aging (1995) separates physical function into five categories in descending order: physically elite; physically fit; physically independent; physically frail; and physically dependent. A second edition of Physical Dimensions of Aging was published in 2005.

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Take Two – Psychological and Social Age

by American Senior Fitness Association

Another excellent resource on the topic is Exercise for Older Adults: ACE’s Guide for Fitness Professionals (second edition, 2005) in which Janie Clark wrote the chapter "Older Adult Exercise Techniques." Edited by Cedric X. Bryant and Daniel J. Green of the American Council on Exercise, this book includes an especially pertinent chapter entitled "Physiology of Aging and Exercise" written by Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko. It explores the ideas discussed above and provides particularly interesting sections on psychological age and social age.

Psychological age refers to a person’s mental or cognitive functioning and includes factors such as memory, learning, and self-esteem. Ongoing research suggests that while some older individuals exhibit the psychological adjustments characteristic of their chronological age, others act psychologically younger or older than their peers.

Social age has to do with the concept that society imposes a strong influence on what is perceived to be appropriate or inappropriate behaviors for persons within specific chronological age groups. As an example, Chodzko-Zajko notes that some older adults view public physical activity as undignified, while others embrace it. Contemporary researchers want to know whether society’s expectations might be conditioning people to become less active with age and, therefore, less healthy. The World Health Organization supports a more dynamic approach to aging in which older adults are encouraged to demonstrate higher levels of activity.

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Take Three – Personal Independence Versus Skilled Care Needs

by American Senior Fitness Association

In their publication Fitness Professional’s Handbook (fifth edition, 2007), co-authors Edward T. Howley and B. Don Franks credit distinguished researcher Roy J. Shephard for the development of a different classification system that links chronological age to the characteristics typical in large aging populations. It can be briefly summarized as follows:

  • Middle age (40-65) — 10-30 percent decline in biological functions;
  • Old age or young old age (65-75) — additional losses of function;
  • Very old age (75-85) — considerable impairment of function but can maintain independence;
  • Oldest old age (over 85) — nursing care or institutionalization often needed.
  • Howley, Franks, and Shephard deeply respect the complications involved in attempting to define or identify specific stages of the aging process. The Fitness Professional’s Handbook emphasizes that health-fitness personnel must be alert to the differences among their older adult physical activity participants.

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    Take Four – Eugeric Versus Pathogeric Aging

    by American Senior Fitness Association

    In their book Physiology of Exercise and Healthy Aging (2008), co-authors Albert W. Taylor and Michel J. Johnson list these "Age Categories for Seniors": middle age 45-64; young old 65-74; old 75-84; old old 85-99; and oldest old 100-plus. They further break down senescence (the gradual age-related decline in cell and body functioning that eventually leads to the death of an organism) into the following classifications: elderly 65-74; older elderly 74-84; and very old 85-plus.

    However, like all of the other authors, researchers, and organizations named above, their major focus is not on age numbers. Taylor and Johnson make an important distinction between eugeric aging (changes that will inevitably happen to everyone) and pathogeric aging (pathological changes that are not predestined aspects of aging). They point out that disuse and a progressive decrease in physical activity level over time can significantly contribute to pathogeric aging.

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    Take Five – Closing Thoughts

    by American Senior Fitness Association

    Although the numerous authorities referenced in this special issue of Experience! may approach the challenges of quantifying and describing the aging process from various angles, a close look at their works reveals their positions to be complementary. All are aware that an over-emphasis on chronological age could inaccurately stereotype people according to the number of years they have lived.

    "These kinds of complexities illustrate to a large degree why SFA has always stressed the importance of individualization in older adult fitness programming," says Janie Clark. "This includes obtaining medical clearance for exercise and seeking relevant input from the client’s health care professional. The client’s lifestyle, physical activity history, and personal interests must be taken into account. On another practical front, easy-to-administer functional fitness testing methods can be implemented in the workplace to help determine functional status, plan appropriate programming, and track the progress of senior physical fitness participants."

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    Old Age Is…

    by American Senior Fitness Association

    To conclude today’s issue with a light take on a serious subject, we reprint a favorite quotation. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Old age is always fifteen years older than I am."

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