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Elderly living longer, healthier lives

| Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007

Helen Nothwang does not even break a sweat when she pedals for an hour each week on a stationary bike at West Penn Hospital.

In fact, Nothwang, 92, routinely walks four miles round-trip to the Giant Eagle, trudges up and down the stairs of her three-story Bloomfield house, takes an aerobics class and volunteers at West Penn.

"How many 92-year-olds do you know like her?" asks Gillian Scott, an exercise physiologist at the hospital.

Nothwang is becoming more the norm as Americans live longer and with fewer disabilities.

Disability rates for Americans 65 and older dropped from 26.5 percent in 1982 to 19 percent in 2004-05, according to the National Institute on Aging. The latest statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics show that between 1995 and 2004, life expectancy for Americans increased by two years to 77.8.

"It's obvious people are living longer," said Dr. Monica Dua, who runs West Penn's program for homebound elderly. "Financial security, the ability to be independent, to engage in something productive, social activities -- all these things contribute to wellness."

Senior citizens in Pennsylvania appear to be healthier than most. According to the federal Administration on Aging, only 39.4 percent of people 65 and older in the state are disabled. That compares with a national rate of 41.9 percent.

Dr. Neil Resnick, chief of geriatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, attributed the improved health of the elderly to greater knowledge of the benefits of exercise and a good diet, and of the dangers of smoking and high cholesterol.

Resnick, director of Pitt's Institute on Aging, said a drop in pension programs has more people postponing retirement.

"A lot of people 65 and up are now finding they are not only willing to go back to work and have to, but want to," he said.

Dick Groat, 77, of Edgewood and Ligonier is in his 29th year as a radio analyst for the University of Pittsburgh's basketball games.

"Those youngsters on the Pitt basketball team, they keep me young," he said.

It's been 47 years since Groat came off the disabled list to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series. He was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1960.

He weighs 170 pounds -- two pounds below his playing weight when he starred in baseball and basketball at Duke University. Groat does therapy to correct a disc problem in his neck but still plays golf regularly. He owns Champion Lakes Golf Club in Fairfield in Westmoreland County with former Pirates teammate Jerry Lynch.

"Now, I can't break 85 anymore," he said. "From the time I had neck surgery, I lost 50 to 75 yards on my tee shot, maybe 100 yards. Of course, being 77 might have something to do with that."

Groat smokes Marlboro Lights and enjoys a beer now and then, but offers a suggestion for a healthy life.

"Stay active," he said. "I've seen too many people that retire, and all they do is go downhill."

Nothwang, who worked in her father's bakery in Bloomfield when she was 11, volunteers at the hospital once a week.

"I know people who sit down and watch TV all day long," said Nothwang, who lives with her brother, Joseph, 85. "You can't do that."

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