Since 2011, about 10,000 people in the United States turned 65 every day. The baby boomer generation and those born before 1946 are the nation’s fastest-growing age group, on track to overtake children by 2035.
“As this large population ages, it’s really important to support health-promoting behaviors and have an approach that focuses on prevention — not just treatment — when it comes to chronic disease. To do that, we need to know what their needs are and how best to do so. To address those needs,” says Sarah Francis.
Francis has held many titles at Iowa State University: Professor and Jane Armstrong Endowed Chair of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Interim Associate Dean of Iowa State Extension and Outreach in the College of Human Sciences, and Interim Director of Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. But Francis introduces himself as a healthy aging advocate, implementation scientist and registered dietitian.
In 2010, she joined a US Department of Agriculture multistate project that brought together experts in physical activity, clinical nutrition, and community health programming to support healthy aging. Parts of their research have focused on identifying factors that influence physical activity, such as “aging anxiety.” Francis explains that this anxiety includes fear and anxiety about loss of autonomy and relationships, physical and emotional changes, and discomfort or lack of enjoyment in being around older people.
Previous studies have shown that if you have high anxiety about aging, you have poorer health outcomes. But if you view it more positively as a life stage, you have better health outcomes. “You’re more likely to make lifestyle changes that benefit you in the long run.”
Sarah Francis, Professor, Iowa State University
A cross-section of experiences, perspectives
To understand how aging concerns relate to physical activity and other factors such as age, gender, marital status and income, the team designed a 142-question online survey and recruited participants through Qualtrics. Francis explained that they wanted a cross-section of urban, suburban and rural residents and included people under 40 to understand how different aspects of aging anxiety change with age. In total, 1,250 people from Washington, DC and six states, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Rhode Island, South Dakota and West Virginia, responded to the survey.
Among key findings, participants who identified as African American had a higher interest in health-related programs. The researchers followed up with another study focusing more closely on the responses of 178 African American survey participants, the results of which were published in September.
With this subset, the researchers found the greatest concern about aging was fear of loss, which was highest among people with low incomes and those who lived alone. Females aged 40-49 were more concerned about changes in their physical appearance than their male counterparts and participants in older age categories. While rates of physical activity were lower than white survey respondents, African American participants had positive attitudes about physical activity overall, particularly vigorous exercise.
“One of the most important findings is that higher positivity about physical activity is associated with lower anxiety about aging,” Francis said. “Perhaps this is because the physical, mental and social benefits of being active contribute to overall well-being and a more favorable perception of the aging process, ultimately reducing aging-related anxiety.”
In the paper, the researchers point to evidence that exercise, particularly strength training, helps older adults preserve bone mass and muscle, reduce the risk of dementia, and maintain motor control. They say the study’s findings “may help develop educational workshops to manage aging anxiety while discussing health benefits.” [physical activity] “Participation.”
Francis added that many middle-aged and older adults face barriers to exercise. Some fear injury. Others don’t have access to gyms or live in communities that lack safe sidewalks and parks. To improve access, Francis and researchers from the multistate project aimed to develop and test a virtual program that would be community-based and delivered through Extension. It will include physical activity at home and an educational component to encourage eating healthy and protein-rich foods.
“It’s always important to listen to your audience. Doing things like this helps ensure that messaging resonates with the people you’re trying to reach, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Francis.
Monroe-Lord, L., etc (2023) Aging anxiety and physical activity outcomes among middle-aged and older African Americans. Physical activity and health. doi.org/10.5334/paah.287.