Secrets of Healthy Aging—Are You IDEAL?

Insight into Determinants of Exceptional Aging and Longevity

By Karen Steward 

          Why do some people reach age 80 or 90 and older free of physical and cognitive disease?  National Institute of Aging (NIA) researchers on the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging (BLSA) are exploring this question through the IDEAL (Insight into Determinants of Exceptional Aging and Longevity) study.   Although research exists on the relationship between long life and functional decline, we still know relatively little about why certain individuals have excellent health well into their 80s while others experience disease and physical decline earlier in life. The IDEAL study is recruiting older persons age 80 or more who are physically healthy and mentally sharp to participate in this research. IDEAL aims to discover the physiological, environmental and behavioral risk factors that distinguish these exceptional people from others who have not aged so successfully.  (You can get information about participating in this study by calling 855 804-3325 or by emailing [email protected]

          Previous research of the longitudinal study set the stage for the IDEAL study.  NIA Researchers working have examined the normal processes of aging for over 50 years.  What is normal aging?  This may seem like a simple question, but for scientists, it gets to the heart of something quite complex: how to identify the true effects of aging and how to separate factors such as disease, socioeconomic disadvantage or lack of educational opportunity from underlying biological or other mechanisms common to human aging. 

          The methodology of the BLSA, which was revolutionary in 1958, is still used to study aging today.  As a longitudinal study, the same people have been repeatedly evaluated over time.  Even in the IDEAL study, participants who are 80 or older at time of enrollment will be asked to return each year to be evaluated. 

          The findings of the BLSA have led to two major conclusions.  First, normal aging can be distinguished from disease.  Although people’s bodies change and can in some ways decline over time, these changes do not inevitably lead to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension or dementia.  A number of disorders that typically occur in old age are a result of disease processes, not normal aging.  The second conclusion is that there is no single chronological timetable of human aging.  We all age differently.  There are more differences among older people than among younger people.  Genetics, lifestyle and disease processes affect the rate of aging between and within all individuals.

          Over the years, BLSA scientists and other researchers from a broad range of disciplines have identified factors that influence healthy aging.  From their research have come action steps we can take to maintain our health and function as we get older. 

  • Exercise and physical activity are good for you.  People who exercise regularly live longer and better. It’s never too late.  Evidence from the BLSA suggests that people who begin exercise training in later life can experience improved heart function.  Exercise and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that often occur with age.  Balance exercises help prevent falls.  Strength exercises build muscles and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.  Flexibility exercises help keep the body limber and give the freedom of movement you need to do everyday activities.
  • We need to pay attention to both our weight and shape.  For older people, the health problems associated with obesity may take a back seat to problems associated with body composition (fat to muscle ratio) and location of fat (hips or waist on the body).
  • For older adults thinner is not always better.  Older adults who are thin (a body mass index of less than 19) have a higher mortality rate compared to those who are obese or of normal weight.  
  • Think about what you eat. What you eat can either support healthy aging or cause health problems. Foods such as vegetables, fruits, fish and nuts may bring health benefits.
  • Participating in activities you enjoy may actually be good for your health.   According to BLSA data, people who are sociable, generous and goal-oriented report being happier and less depressed than other people.  Other studies have shown that people who are involved in hobbies and social and leisure activities may be at lower risk for a number of health problems.

          More findings from the BLSA about aging can be found on the National Institute of Aging’s website on the BLSA webpage at

          The research efforts of the BLSA continue in the IDEAL study. As researchers further pinpoint the influences on how we age, and how some people age well, they also hope to develop more effective ways to intervene to prevent disease and promote healthy aging.

 If you are, or someone you know is: 80 or older, can walk a quarter of a mile unassisted without pain or shortness of breath, has no physical disease and no loss of cognitive function, you can help researchers discover the secrets to successful aging by enrolling in the IDEAL study. For more information, search online for NIA IDEAL

Karen Steward, Director for Recruitment, at IDEAL can be reached at [email protected]

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