Sept. 25, 2008 -- 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.
What Are the Real Risks of Old-Age Dancing?
"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."
Dr. Neil Resnick, chief of geriatric medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute on Aging, said many people are confused about which physical ailments are caused by natural aging or by decades of abuse to our bodies.
How Far Can You Turn Back the Clock?
"I think the bottom line is that, if we talk about the impact of aging, alone, it is a slight decline over your lifetime," said Resnick.
That decline, according to Resnick, takes two forms. After about age 30, people's organs naturally experience a 1 percent decline in physiological power per one calendar year of life.
But Resnick said that decline isn't such a big deal, considering that, at top shape, our organs are designed to function at a capacity 4 to 6 times more than a body needs in daily living.
"That's why you can give up a whole kidney and still live," Resnick said. "That's why Johnny Kelly, at 83, ran the Boston Marathon, and I mean, ran the marathon, he didn't walk the marathon."
The second decline, according to Resnick, includes "farsightedness, hearing loss, and 50 percent of people get degenerative arthritis -– that's it, that's aging."
Resnick attributes more health problems in old age to the probability that people have suffered from diseases, like diabetes.
"With longevity, 20 percent of it is determined by genes," said Resnick. "The rest of it is determined by you, and what you choose to do."
Yet, doctors say how to choose an exercise at age 80 can be tricky.
Worth the Risk of Injury?
"For this lady, if she can do all that stuff, she's in good physical shape, and she can maintain it, great," Suri said. "For a typical patient, you would not encourage someone to do this sort of thing. ... If someone hasn't exercised regularly, we'd encourage them to see their doctor before they start."
Once a person older than 40, or with a medical problem, gets clearance from the doctors, most experts have two words of advice: Start slow.
"You would want to start with a walking program, or start with dance maneuvers that are much simpler," said Sallis, but "You should go for it."
According to Sallis, people who exercise three to four times a week cut their risk of dementia and Alzheimer's, and by working their bones, they cut their risk of bone fracture injuries in the first place.
"You'd be safer if you sit in the house all day, but you'd die of chronic diseases that way," Sallis said. "The benefits so far outweigh the risk of injury."