By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
A group of West Valley researchers are asking why some seniors seem unaffected by time.
As friends gather to celebrate one such man’s 95th birthday in Sun City West this week, cake and punch are served only after he plays 90 minutes of racquetball.
An avid player for more than 50 years, Lake Westphal once ranked number six nationally among amateurs in the sport. Today, he is among the oldest men still playing competitive racquetball in the U.S.
“At my age, I walk onto the court and get a gold medal,” Mr. Westphal said with a chuckle. “There’s not many in my age group still playing.”
Since moving to the Valley, he has been a tireless adherent and advocate for the sport. He taught Sun City West beginners to play for six years and established the Swing Into Spring Senior Racquetball Tournament, which draws players to the community from across the country every year.
Asked his secret, Mr. Westphal credited participation in vigorous sports for his sustained physical and mental health.
“I’ve never been on a diet or looked at the stats on food products,” he said. “Racquetball and handball are two of the best. When you’re on the court, it gives you relief from the days’ work and stress. You’re working your butt off and don’t have time to think about anything else.”
Mr. Westphal plans to stick with the game at least another five years, he said.
“About two years ago, I decided I wanted to be the oldest man in the U.S. still playing at 100 years old. That is my goal now,” he added.
Even in his 90s, Mr. Westphal is not alone in the community of active, healthy seniors. He is one of more than 650 locals participating in a longevity study conducted by the Banner Sun Health Research Institute Center for Healthy Aging.
Edward Zamrini, M.D. Cleo Roberts Memory and Movement Disorders Center director at Sun Health and serves as medical director of the study, which has included more than 1,400 participants over the past decade. Also researching Alzheimer’s disease, he said studying healthy seniors may lead to medical breakthroughs.
“In aging and Alzheimer’s, there are very few centers that are studying healthy aging,” Dr. Zamrini said. “We feel we can learn a lot from our healthy aging population.”
Questionnaire results from Sun Cities participants reveal 18 percent described their health as “excellent,” 41 percent as “very good” and 31 percent as “good.” Though the study is open to those 50 and older, researchers are especially interested in those aged past 80.
“We have an aging group that tends to be healthy and some of the people we are following are in their 90s and even 100s. The oldest we have studied lived to age 110,” Dr. Zamrini said. “Obviously, people want to live longer, healthier lives, so we’re interested in learning from our healthier agers, what is their secret?”
Researchers are looking at psychology, cognitive function, physical health, spirituality and other factors to learn what sets the healthiest seniors apart. Examining what keeps some healthy could lead to better guidelines for all aging seniors, but researchers hope to learn much more, according to Dr. Zamrini.
“At some point, everybody’s going to get sick, everybody is going to die,” he said. “We are trying to figure out, is there anything that happens three or four years before that may be early warning sings? We are currently analyzing our data to figure out an answer to that.”
By determining early indicators of failing health, doctors may someday be able to recognize oncoming issues and intervene appropriately, Dr. Zamrini added.
The Sun Health researchers have scholarly publications in the works, which will detail some of their findings. One paper will examine cognitive function and psychology and the interaction of those factors with depression, he said.
“Results so far suggest staying physically active protects against depression,” Dr. Zamrini explained.
Although the program has a wait list of more than 500 seniors, researchers are eager to attract the oldest healthy seniors in the community. Research Manager Kathleen O’Connor encouraged more to sign up, reiterating finding more participants of advanced age and varied background is important to the success of the long term study.
“We’re very proud of our participants and the communities we serve in the area. We’re looking for the oldest of the old and we are also always looking for cultural diversity,” Ms. O’Connor said. “The more people we get in, the better look we can get at this population.”
Those who want to join can call Ms. O’Connor at 623-832-7662. With more resources, Sun Health researchers hope the program may continue to expand, she added.
“As we get more funding, we hope to accelerate our recruitment,” Ms. O’Connor said.