This story questions whether our understanding of aging on a basic science level may be wrong, based on a single small study of only 125 cycling enthusiasts. There is novelty in the decision to study active seniors exclusively and certain tests showed less of a decline in function than one would otherwise expect. But the story’s central claim that “many of our expectations about the inevitability of physical decline with advancing years may be incorrect and that how we age is, to a large degree, up to us” appears hype. No expert is quoted outside of the study’s own authors to support that claim.
This may be a classic chicken vs. egg story. Are these older individuals in such good shape because they exercise so much? Or do they exercise so much, at least in part, because their bodies are different and able to function better than most other individuals their age? For example, it’s possible that the individuals studied have genetic differences that decrease their risk for overuse injuries that may increase with age. The story doesn’t seem to consider that possibility. Positing that how we age is “up to us” is an empowering message, but one that ignores the influence of genetics on the aging process. Getting some independent comment on the results would have helped identify this crucial caveat.
It’s difficult for many people to be active as cyclists, especially in low-income areas that lack bicycle paths. It’s also difficult for many to afford to spend the time needed to exercise. The story notes that older people today tend to be “quite sedentary.” Perhaps cost is a contributing factor.
The story made a reasonable attempt to quantify the study results in a way that would make sense to readers. It explained what the “Timed Up and Go” test is, and compared the results from the study participants with those of typical older adults and normal young adults.
The story does not include any comment about risks of injury or harms that might result from an active lifestyle riding miles on a bicycle.
The story provides a nice description of how the researchers conducted the study. However, it could have been much more skeptical about the implications of the findings. The researchers’ perspective seems to be taken without considering the uniqueness of the patient group. How representative are they of patients 55 to 79 years old? Do they differ from the broader community only in the amount they exercise or are there other differences? Differences such as genetic factors, prior injuries, socioeconomics, diet, weight, etc may all be unmeasured confounders. The story nods to the fact that this is “an unusual group of older adults,” but doesn’t explain what that might mean in terms of how to interpret the study. Overall, the story is too quick to believe that the findings are due to the activity. Maybe yes, maybe no. As such, the quality of the evidence doesn’t meet the mark.
The story implies that this study gives us a new way to see aging itself, but escapes the trap of making aging appear as if is a disease to be cured.
We are given no comments by a non-involved source on the value or limitations of this small study. What’s more, the story does not include any independent experts who could put the study results into context. Even a sentence or two of caution could have gone a long way here.
The story implies that the fountain of youth may be vigorous exercise in the amount described. But there is no attempt to say whether lesser amounts, or other types of physical activity, may have similar results or not. A reader may then say, “What’s the point? If I can’t do that much, I shouldn’t bother to get off the couch at all.” Exercise is not an all-or-nothing activity. The authors could have provided a brief statement that it isn’t clear whether lesser amounts of exercise may have similar or different results.
As noted above, finding time and places to ride a bicycle is not always as easy at it sounds. But we’ll rate this not applicable since we’ve already dinged the story for this issue above under “costs.”
The story does a good job of laying some groundwork for why this research took a different approach than other studies.
The quotes in the story are not the same as the ones in a news release issued by Kings College London, so it appears interviews were done. However, the news release was more cautious than this story about the results. For example, the story calls the results proof that “many of our expectations of the inevitability of physical decline with advancing years may be incorrect” and “how we age is, to a large degree, up to us.”
The release does not extend to suggest that individuals can control the aging process, but just raises the possibility that there is a great degree of variability in how people age. Here is an excerpt from the release:
“Overall, the study concluded that ageing is likely to be a highly individualist phenomenon. As people are so different, the team concluded that more studies are needed which follow the same healthy and exercising individuals over time to better understand the effects of ageing the body.”