Physical performance decline starts at 50

While many of us would like to think that the 50s are the prime of our lives, new physical performance research shows that this decade might instead mark the beginning of physical decline, which is earlier than previously thought.

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However, for triathletes the news isn’t all doom and gloom. The study, run by Duke Health, indicates that efforts to maintain physical abilities should start before the age of 50. This means that the hours spent training for triathlons in mid-life can go a long way in preserving the skills to keep mobile in later decades.

The research also found that a simple test can determine early weaknesses  that can then be addressed before they naturally begin to decline.  This will increase the chances of maintaining functions (and racing!) for longer.

“Our research reinforces a life-span approach to maintaining physical ability – don’t wait until you are 80 years old and cannot get out of a chair,” said lead author Katherine S. Hall, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at Duke. “People often misinterpret ‘aging’ to mean ‘aged’, and that issues of functional independence aren’t important until later in life. This bias can exist among researchers and healthcare providers, too. The good news is, with proper attention and effort, the ability to function independently can often be preserved with regular exercise.”

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 The team studied a group of 775 adults, enrolled in the MURDOCK Study -Duke Health’s longitudinal clinical research study. Participants’ ages ranged from their 30s through to their 100s, with broad representation across sexes and races.

 Participants were asked to perform a set of simple tasks, which were used to demonstrate strength, endurance and balance. 

On average, men performed better than women on the tasks, and younger participants outperformed their older counterparts. Yet declines in physical ability were consistently shown to appear in the decade of the 50s, irrespective of gender or other demographic factors. Different abilities seemed to decline over slightly different time frames. Primarily, both sexes showed the start of the decline in their 50s, and this continued through the next decades. Changes in aerobic endurance and gait speed appeared more with participants in their 60s and 70s. 

The study also provided simple yet effective clinical benchmarks to measure physical ability, meaning any problems can be detected earlier.  

“Typically, functional tests are conducted on people in their 70s and 80s, and by then you’ve missed 40 years of opportunities to remedy problems,” said Miriam C. Morey, Ph.D., senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University School of Medicine.

 This news challenges previous assumptions, not only on when we should start thinking about physical abilities, but how we view their decline. While triathletes and other sportspeople are generally active, simple tasks can help highlight any areas of weakness that ideally should be addressed before they naturally begin to decline. 

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