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As national life expectancy trends upward to just shy of 79, some North Dakotans are boosting average with extra laps

GRAND FORKS -- Jim Edgar, 95, has a simple family motto. "Exercise or die," Edgar says. In his home at Valley Memorial Homes senior residential center in Grand Forks, the words are something to live by, though for a nonagenarian, exercise takes o...

Roy Huot works out Friday afternoon in the exercise room at Valley Memorial Homes in Grand Forks. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
Roy Huot works out in the exercise room at Valley Square in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS - Jim Edgar, 95, has a simple family motto.

"Exercise or die," Edgar says.

In his home at Valley Memorial Homes senior residential center in Grand Forks, the words are something to live by, though for a nonagenarian, exercise takes on a quiet pace. Edgar starts his morning with simple calisthenics, a regimen he picks up later in the day as part of a group exercise class.

"You lift your arms like this," he says, demonstrating the movement. "Then you wiggle your feet, bend over to the ground to get loosened up. That helps pretty good."

The World War II veteran and former Warren, Minn., farmer walks up and down the length of the halls of the residential center at 4000 Valley Square five or more times a day.

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"I probably can make it up and down six times in three-quarters of an hour," Edgar said. "I walk three rounds before breakfast and polish it off in the afternoon."

Healthy population

Edgar is in good company in North Dakota. The portion of the state's population ages 85 years or older is among the highest in the nation at about 2.4 percent. On the younger edge of older, 2015 census data estimates about 14.2 percent of the state's current population is of an age greater than 65, less than half a percentage point below the national average. At the moment, more than 46 million people are in that same age bracket. By the year 2060, the national population of people age 65-plus is expected to be near 100 million.

Though life expectancies recently have taken a dip in some populations, the average lifespan in the U.S. has been trending upward with the development of medical science. According to the Centers for Disease Control, life expectancy across all national demographics is a little less than 79 years.

Dr. Donald Jurivich, chair of geriatrics at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said increases to American longevity can be largely attributed to improved treatment of chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and, to a lesser extent, issues related to cancer. On the flip side, Jurivich said increasing rates of chronic illnesses connected to obesity-namely diabetes and cardiovascular disease - recently have contributed to a decline in national life expectancy rates.

Though promoting better treatment and healthy practices remains at the forefront, Jurivich said some research has taken a new interest in "curing" the process of aging altogether.

"You could gain much longer lifespan, but the question always is: if you live longer, what's the quality of life?" he said. "That's the main thing. Not just to extend lifespan, but the functional lifespan."

Looking for signs

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Part of the modern quest for the fountain of youth has focused on identifying biomarkers - measurable, telltale signs in an organism that reflect some kind of status - that provide a deep-status update for the aging process. Though some symptoms of aging are readily apparent, Jurivich said there's still no consensus among scientists as to what might constitute a useful set of biomarkers to track throughout a lifespan.

One marker that's already drawn attention is the telomere, a kind of molecular cap found on the ends of the chromosomes that contain most of our genetic material. Telomeres have been described as metaphorically similar to the protective plastic tip on the end of a shoelace - when the casing crumbles away with use over time, the lace itself eventually will begin to unravel.

Research suggests the telomere might play a similar role for DNA. As we age, the idea goes, the telomere erodes, increasing the vulnerability of our genetic code and exposing our cells to the wear and tear of old age.

Jurivich said UND's geriatrics department is submitting a grant to examine the specific question as to whether health providers can use biomarkers - including telomeres - to track the rate of aging in a patient. If possible, doctors could one day be prescribing longevity prescriptions to improve biomarker status.

If funded, the research project would be the first of its kind and thus "pretty cutting edge," Jurivich said. For the time being, there are a few simpler approaches for those looking to hang onto their vitality.

"It's well-known that people who exercise, are more vegetarian, they live longer," Jurivich said. "There's clear evidence that the things we do to our body can influence the lifespan."

He said other things that seem to help in living long include getting plenty of sleep, reducing stress levels, maintaining strong social ties and avoiding chronic illnesses.

Roy Huot, nearly 86, exemplifies the exercise portion of the longevity plan.

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"I'm feeling good," said Huot, slowly pumping his legs on a sit-down version of an elliptical machine.

He explains the machine is a newer addition to a fitness and rehabilitation room at 4000 Valley Square, where he's resided in the independent living facility for the past five years. Every day, Huot puts in 100 minutes of exercise on the machine. There's not much that would keep him away from the routine, he said - the only exception is when he has company over.

The Korean War veteran made his career as a farmer east of Crookston, where staying active was easy. After his retirement, Huot and his wife kept moving by traveling the U.S.

At Valley Square, he says it "seems like I feel better when I work out."

"My legs get to be more limber, as do my arms," said Huot, who usually exercises with two friends even older than himself. "It keeps me doing something, and you have to have something to do."

For Edgar, the exercise is even more than that.

"I don't see how people make it when they can't get around," he said. "I'm really blessed that I can be up and take care of myself."

Related Topics: HEALTH
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