When actress Cloris Leachman hoisted a leg up on the judges' desk after a brisk number on "Dancing with the Stars" Monday night, she shocked people with her sexy ploy. But she also wowed people with her agility.
At 82, Leachman survived the first round of the dance competition show, all the while donning high heels, a tight gown and spinning with the best of them.
It was entertainment, sure, but doctors say it is an example of what many people could be capable of doing in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.
According to Leachman's publicist, she could not grant any interviews this week. But a representative from "Dancing with the Stars" said Leachman got "the thumbs up" by four doctors on the set.
"I say kudos to Cloris Leachman," said Dr. Mark R. Hutchinson, professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Dara Torres in the Olympic Games in her 40s winning the silver medal and Cloris Leachman at 82 years old on 'Dancing with the Stars,'" said Hutchinson. "The message is clear: Our pre-determined expectations, based on age alone, are clearly wrong."
Yet, some expectations about age, with people's bad backs and broken hips, surely must be right. Hutchinson and other doctors recommend watching the risks of exercising and achieving Leachman's fitness level.
"While age is a factor related to injury risk, it's more important to look at a person's physiologic age, rather than calendar age," said Hutchinson.
By "physiologic age," Hutchinson means the state of a person's lungs, heart, balance, coordination, muscle, and past history of diseases. All this can put a person at risk for injury or heart trouble during exercise, no matter what their age.
Yet, when it comes to bones, older folks tend to have a clear disadvantage.
"Everybody at that age has arthritis, though some more severe," said Dr. Robert Sallis, director of sports medicine at the Kaiser Permanent Medical Center in Fontana, Calif., and the immediate past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
Sallis said, however, "I think my biggest concern is, women at that age often have osteoporosis, or osteopenia (low bone density)."
According to the World Health Organization, 70 percent of women over the age of 80 suffer from bone loss, which translates into falls being more risky for older people.
"With a fall, the same type of impact in two people weighing the same weight is more likely to result in a fracture in an older person," said Dr. Misty Suri, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at the Ochsner Sports Medicine Department in New Orleans.
A hip fracture in an 80-year-old is often much more dangerous than a hip fracture for a younger person. Elderly patients can have trouble tolerating surgery, and doctors say they often get sick with pneumonia while lying in bed.
"The mortality of a hip fracture is very high," Sallis said.
But Suri said people can do a lot to overcome bone loss: With each force exerted on the bone during exercise, the bone will remodel and strengthen.
"Many people these days who are old are getting back in shape," Suri said. "We have people in their 70s, 80s, saying they are in the best shape of their lives."