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LIVING LONGER/STAYING STRONGER: DEBILITATING ILLS COMMON IN PAST ARE NO LONGER SEEN AS INEVITABLE PART OF AGING

In 1900, men and women worked hard, played when they could and, at an age considered young by today's standards, they died.

Things have changed. Aging now means adding experiences and memories while slowing down a little, but it doesn't necessarily mean suffering the debilitating health conditions once associated with growing old.People still work hard, but they are living - and working and playing - longer than ever before. And the outlook for overall life expectancy just seems to get brighter, according to experts in gerontology.

"I think it has a lot to do with general information on lifestyle," said Lee White, associate area representative for the American Association of Retired Persons, the nation's largest organization for people over 55. "People are becoming more educated about life expectancy and what to do. They are cutting down on smoking and drinking and eating better. They're taking preventive health measures."

Most important, White said, older Americans are improving their attitudes. "If you improve your attitude and lifestyle, longevity improves. Studies show that involvement - the things you do - has a real impact."

The patterns of illness and disease have changed dramatically in the past 80 years, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publication, "Aging America." At the turn of the century, older people tended to suffer from acute and often life-taking diseases.

Now, while four of five Americans over age 65 have at least one chronic condition like arthritis, hypertension, hearing impairment or heart problems, those conditions are not necessarily limiting physical activity and ability. Advances in medical technology and good information about health and lifestyle get most of the credit.

One thing hasn't changed: Women are more likely to have chronic health problems and men acute conditions.

Generally, though, "senior" citizens are staying vital by participating in sports (last year the Huntsman Chemical Senior World Games, for example, included athletes with ages ranging into the mid-80s), volunteering in large numbers, taking part-time jobs, going back to school, changing careers, starting businesses and doing "just about everything we associate with any age group," according to Sally Brown, Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services.

"Very few of the elderly need services, although those who do, need them badly," said Darrell Butler, Salt Lake County Aging Services. "There are limitations, but they're coping with that and are still independent. The world gets a little smaller, but not necessarily less rich."

"I am meeting people I want to be when I grow up," laughed Kris Hill, AARP associate area representative for public relations. "It sounds a little corny, but they are really inspirational.

"Some of them are going through the same things everyone goes through, like problems with their children. But they've survived so much and have all that experience, perspective and education. And older people have a great gift: time to share. There's no sick child at home. They're staying even more vital now and we're getting away from the overemphasis on youth, although we still fight negative perceptions.

"The theory that the aging process is nature's way of telling you you're winding down is a rationalization," said Dr. Gene Cohen, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist with a subspecialty in geriatrics. "We have to separate the effects of normal aging from illness. Until 1970, we did a poor job of separating the effects, and problems were dismissed as being inevitable. Research on intellectual functions has highlighted the differences. Those who age and maintain their health show little change or deterioration in intellectual function, although there is a reduction in reaction time.

"If you are sharp at 83, you'll probably be sharp forever. Older citizens have enormous capacity for career and departures in later life," Cohen said.

One in nine people age 65-74 can't do certain activities, but two of three report good or excellent health. Of those over 85, one-fourth are in institutions, and the other three-fourths still care for themselves, according to Cynthia Taeuber, chief of the Census Bureau's age and statistics branch, Population Division.

She said of those "old-old" caring for themselves, only one-fifth need outside help. "That's the health situation of the oldest; it doesn't really make sense to talk about `the elderly.' "

Because women tend to outlive men, more of them live alone. Older men are more apt to be in a family setting. And older married couples are usually more healthy financially than those who live alone. Half of the women over 75 live alone; only 20 percent of men do.

Taeuber said assets generally increase for those 60-75, although actual income decreases with retirement. At about age 80, assets decrease. But inflation has less effect on older people because their major asset is usually ownership of a home.

Early retirement (before age 65) is on the rise. But older workers are becoming an increasingly important segment of the work force as the birth rate decreases, said Dallas Salisbury, president of the Employee Benefits Research Institute.

"People can afford retirement more. A company usually has more people accept early retirement than expected - three or four times more," he said. "Age 62 is the trend, and as long as Social Security is available, we'll see more people retiring.

"There's a heavy dose of schizophrenia in that we are providing economic incentives for people to retire and wondering how come people choose to retire."

The downside of retirement without proper planning, he said, is that people tend to live about 10 years longer than they expected - or budgeted for.

"Seniors know they're still capable of getting out and making contributions," White said. "They are backing away from more sedentary lifestyles when they retire. They even take on second careers, including voluntarism."

"We thought aging led to a period of time when people are mentally finished, wasting away. That's not true. In your 60s, you still have 15-25 good years ahead of you," White said. "And maybe more."

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(ADDITIONAL INFORMATION)

What do you call someone who is older? Elderly? Mature? You can't just say "aging" because we're all doing that. It's a reporter's nightmare, because someone's offended no matter what you say.

The word of choice shifts every couple of years. Advocates tend to refer to those over 60 as "seniors."

Want another argument? When does "old" begin? People over 65 are generally considered senior citizens. But that's broken down into "young-old", "old" and "old-old."

Just don't say "over the hill." Because the people who are over the hill today are probably out jogging. And they'll be back.

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Growing old

- About one in eight Americans is 65 or older, an increase of 18 percent since 1980.

- In 1988, there were 146 older women for every 100 older men, nationally. The sex ratio increases with age, ranging from 120 women for every 100 men in the 65-69 age group to 257 women for every 100 men for those 85 and older.

- The fastest-growing segment of the entire population is those over 85.

- Older Americans are more likely to vote than any other age group.

- The United States has the third-largest elderly population and the largest 80-plus population in the world.

- Women turning 65 can expect to live about 17 more years; men can expect to live about 15 more years, on average. Life expectancy at age 65 has increased by 2.6 years since 1960.

- Health care is the only budget category on which the elderly spend more money than the non-elderly. From age 65 to 74, it consumes about 8 percent of their budgets. This rises to 13 percent for those who are older. The major health expense is insurance, including Medicare.

- One-fourth have some physical limitation, but only a small proportion of those over 65 are severely disabled.

- About 5 percent of the elderly population is in a nursing home at any given time. Most community services for those who are disabled are provided by "informal supports."

- Most older men are married. Most older women are widowed.

- The education gap between the elderly and the young is closing. By 2000, the median number of school years completed by those over 65 is expected to be 12.4, compared to 12.8 for all persons over 25.

Sources: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Association of Retired Persons.