Too Old to Dance With the Stars?

An 82-year-old contestant is raising eyebrows, and getting doctors' applause.

ByABC News
September 24, 2008, 5:25 PM

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.

"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.