More and more, scientists are learning that regular activity may be able to turn back the clock. A new study conducted in Italy suggests that people over age 60 who exercise consistently have blood vessels resembling those of people less than half their age. This can drastically reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes and is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that exercise can slow the effects of aging. So if you're looking for the fountain of youth, think about diving into an exercise program.
Stefano Taddei, MD, and his colleagues at the University of Pisa found that regular physical activity seems to maintain healthy blood vessels, at least in part, by maintaining proper function of the thin layer of cells that lines the inside of each vessel. This layer produces a substance that helps the blood vessels open when more blood flow is needed. This substance also seems to protect the vessels from developing atherosclerosis -- also known as hardening of the arteries -- and abnormal blood clots.
In the study, investigators compared blood flow in young athletes with an average age of 27 to that of older athletes with an average age of 65. Both groups mostly participated in running, cycling, and triathlons, but the researchers also included some couch potatoes in each group for comparison.
The authors found that both groups of younger people and the older athletes responded similarly when given a drug to increase blood flow -- their blood flow increased. However, the older, nonathletic group did not have an increase in blood flow.
The scientists conclude their results confirm previous findings that age and damaged blood-vessel linings often go hand in hand. The results also demonstrate that physical activity can prevent this problem.
"This is a well-done, well-controlled study with a good message," says heart specialist Gerald Fletcher, MD, a spokesman for the American Heart Association. "It just goes to show the benefits of exercise." Fletcher, who was not involved in the study, tells WebMD that individuals who start exercising at age 60 can improve their blood-vessel function by 25% within just a few months.
The exercise should be predominantly aerobic, which gets the heart pumping, for people to reap the full benefits for the heart. But resistance exercise, such as lifting weights, also may have some benefit. Fletcher says exercising 30 minutes a day, six days week is "ideal."
"Heart disease can be prevented," and exercise is the best tool we have to reduce risk, says Fletcher, who teaches at the Mayo Medical School in Jacksonville, Fla.