Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
Three Simple Tests to See How Long You Will Live
“How long do I have to live?” my patient Mark asked.
“It depends,” I answered.
Just from observing how he was able to maneuver on to the exam table, shaking his hand, and watching him walk out of the exam room I had a pretty good idea of how long he might live. The reason why I answered “it depends,” was that each of us have the chance to change our quality of life, as well as our lifespans, by making simple lifestyle changes today.
In this article I share the science behind 3 simple tests you can do at home to see how well you are aging. Also, I will show you how you can improve your test scores to start enjoy a higher quality of life now.
1. Balancing on One Leg
In this study, researchers from Japan devised a simple test to see who was at risk of having a stroke or suffering from dementia. The design was simple, see if people could stand on one leg for 60 seconds without tipping over or having to put one leg down.
They could even keep their eyes open for this test. To give people the benefit of the doubt, they gave each person two tries and took their best one legged standing time.
To verify the results of this test, researchers studied a total of 1,387 healthy people with no previous history of any brain problems. Their best one legged standing time was then compared to their brain MRI scan and ultrasound study of the carotid artery.
Interestingly, these researchers found that those who could not balance for at least 20 seconds on one leg were at the highest risk for stroke, dementia, and other brain problems even though they appeared healthy. Those who could stand on one leg for the full 60 seconds, without having to put the other leg on the ground, were at the lowest risk of developing future brain problems.
In my mind, the take home message of this study is that if you can’t balance on one leg for a full minute, without touching anything, then balance training, in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle, must be high priority in your life to spare your from future suffering. At the end of this article I offer some simple tips to improve your balance.
2. Gait Speed
Researchers have long suspected that how fast you walk is somehow linked to your lifespan. In this study, researchers analyzed the typical walking speed of 34,485 older adults and then compared that to their 5 year survival.
As you might have predicted, the faster your normal walking speed the more likely you were to live longer. In fact, the best survival was seen for those people who naturally walk 3.6 mph or faster (5.8 kph).
Interestingly, for every 0.2 mph (0.3 kph) slower your natural walk is the chances of a premature death increase by 12%. I should point out that this was their natural walking speed, when they weren’t thinking about it, not how fast they could go if they wanted to.
Your natural walking speed is really determined by your level of fitness, muscle strength, balance, and posture. It is something that happens without you even having to think about it. For those who are already achieving the bare minimum number of steps each day, 10,000 steps, you probably have noticed that your natural walking speed has increased.
3. Grip Strength
In this study, researchers wanted to devise a simple test to see who was at risk of a heart attack and premature death. Once again, this test was very simple. Measure the grip strength.
To see if grip strength matters, researchers studied 142,861 people from 17 different countries. These people included younger as well as older people. Once they knew their grip strength they then watched these 142 thousand plus people over the following 4 years to see what would happen.
Interestingly, those with weak grips were much more likely to develop heart problems or die prematurely. Specifically, for every 10 pounds of force less on their grip strength, the risk of heart problems and death went up by about 17%. Even more surprising was that grip strength better predicted heart problems than blood pressure readings.
To try this one at home, unless you have a special device to measure grip strength, it may be best to just shake a loved one’s hand. If you can slowly squeeze their hand until it starts to hurt then your grip strength is probably normal. Of course, if your grip strength is very strong, be careful so that you don’t cause injury to your loved one’s hand.
You may be wondering how does a weak grip predict future heart problems and an early death. I suspect that there really is not anything special about grip strength. Rather, grip strength is just one of many possible markers of overall muscular tone and physical fitness.
As with the above two tests, if your grip strength is weak, read on to learn how to improve muscle strength and fitness to decrease your risk of heart problems or an early death.
How Can I Improve My Test Scores?
Were your test scores as high as you would like them to be? If not, now is the time to start making changes.
When it comes to your lifespan, quality of life, and ability to live without being a burden on anyone else, the primary factor seems to be physical conditioning. People who are physically fit can generally live the kind of lives they want to live.
To increase your test scores, you need to focus on aerobic, strength, and balance training. Here is what I recommend to my patients to help improve their test scores.
1. Aerobic training
Do something you enjoy that gets your heart rate up. Walking is great. Bicycling, classes at the gym, or swimming also work well.
You may need to rotate what you do each day to prevent repetitive stress injuries. Thirty minutes daily is ideal but if you don’t have the time then increase the intensity for a shorter period of time. In the extreme case, even the “One Minute Workout,” using sprint interval training, will accomplish this purpose.
2. Strength Training
Strength training is especially important as we get older. Unfortunately, somewhere in your 30s you start losing muscle mass unless you are careful.
To help prevent muscle mass, ideally you can do some form of strength training at least twice a week. Many of my patients opt to do this at the gym. Many do it under the direction of a physical trainer.
Strength training can even be simpler than that. Depending on what you do for your daily exercise, it could even be incorporated into your daily exercise program.
For example, I hate to lift weights at the gym. However, I don’t mind mixing in paddle boarding in the warmer months or back country skiing in the colder months. Both paddle boarding and climbing snow covered mountains on my skis work my core and my upper body muscles.
For some of my patients, they get their strength training from heavy physical labor. Regardless of how you do it, the key is to strengthen your lower body, upper body, and core muscles at least twice a week.
3. Balance Training
Balance training is something that is often overlooked in workout programs. Balance training becomes particularly important especially as you age. Even for younger people, balance training is critically important to reduce your risk of injury.
Balance training can be as simple as balancing on one leg while waiting in line at the grocery store. Closing your eyes while brushing your teeth can be another great way to work on balance. As you are taking a seat in a chair try going as slow as possible. This slow motion act of just sitting down in a chair will help with balance and lower extremity strength training.
If walking is what you like to do you can still do balance training while walking. For example, try walking as close to the edge of the sidewalk as possible. Alternatively, try hopping on one foot for brief periods of time while you are walking. If you want to add in strength training while you are walking, try carrying light weights.
If you like going to the gym you can use the stability ball or balance boards. Even squats can be very helpful for people trying to improve their balance and improve strengthening at the same time.
For people exercising outdoors off of paved surfaces, you likely are already getting your balance training. The constant variation in terrain that comes with hiking, trail running, or mountain biking all help with balance.
Even if you did not do well on one or more of these tests, you can quickly turn things around. It is never too late to change. By mastering these three tests, you will be well on your way to living a high quality life.
If you are not already doing aerobic, strength, or balance training, please check with your physician first before embarking on a new program. Also, safety should always come first. One injury could completely derail your entire physical fitness program.
For people with busy schedules, it is often best to see if you can combine aerobic training, strength training, and balance training all into one simple work out. For example, as we discussed, walking daily with light hand weights while tying to walk on the edge of the sidewalk can satisfy all three with one daily exercise.
Did you score as high as you wanted to on these 3 tests? How do you get in your aerobic, strength, and balance training? Please leave your comments below for the benefit of our ever growing online community.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.