acive elderly geriatric image photo agingOn a trip to Australia this past November I had the opportunity to visit with and photograph the oldest professional ping pong player in the world.  98 year old Dorothy DeLow lives in a well kept home nestled in a suburb of Sydney.  She demonstrated her ability to keep a ball in the air and in doing so exhibited the hand-eye coordination of a 25 year old.  Her remarkable performance undermines medical thinking about the deteriorating human nervous system with age, and reveals a fundamental law of growing old: Use it or lose it!

This concept has been discussed for years by Dr. Walter Bortz, who has written numerous articles on the “Disuse Syndrome.”  He postulates this syndrome as consisting of:  (a) cardiovascular vulnerability, (b) musculoskeletal fragility, (c) metabolic instability, (d) immunological susceptibility, (e) nervous system compromise, and (f) premature aging.  A central tenet to his theory states that physical inactivity leads directly to deterioration in body function.

In a recent review article, Dr. Bortz points out that aging involves three aspects of time, matter, and energy.  We cannot yet alter the element of time, but the matter that composes our body is impacted by nutrition, and energy is essential to combat entropy, or the tendency for all matter to become inert and homogeneous.  Maintaining energy flow is therefore a critical component of forestalling the effects of aging.  

Our society equates age with deterioration, an assumption that may not be true.  Firstly, the deterioration associated with age is often due to disease – an extrinsic element.  People often project this incorrect assumption into their lives by becoming increasingly sedentary as they age, therefore altering the energy balance of the body and accelerating its decline.  One study pointed out that two weeks in bed brings about physiologic changes that resemble 30 years of aging. 

Current medical thinking dictates that hand-eye coordination “deteriorates with age.”  But is this really the effect of age, or is it Disuse Syndrome that is responsible for this physical decline?  I believe that Dorothy DeLow has answered this question.  Physical function will certainly be improved or worsened by extraneous factors such as medical technology and disease, but one thing is certain:  if you don’t use it you will lose it.

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Reference for this post was Journal of Gerontology (Med Sci), 65A(4), 382-385, 2010. 

Dr. Bortz has a new book, The Roadmap to 100: The Breakthrough Science of Living a Long and Healthy Life