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NOT THE SAME OLD STORY Health: In politics or most endeavors, what counts is mental and physical condition, not age. Just ask some of the regulars at the Towson Y.

It's minutes after 7 a.m. on a Monday at the Towson Family Y, and, downstairs, some of the early-bird faithful are winding up their workouts.

A. Ludlam Michaux is one of the first done. Heck, the Rodgers Forge resident was at the door when the place opened at 5: 30 a.m., ready to pedal six miles on a bike that gives a great aerobic and upper-body workout while going nowhere. On alternate days, he works through 13 of the Y's 15 Nautilus weight machines.

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The gregarious Michaux -- tall, bald, bushy-browed, and 74 years old -- sticks out less than you might think among the two dozen or so exer-zealots at the Y. Many appear closer to his age than to their 20s. Michaux says he knows regulars who are in their 80s.

Which demonstrates that not everyone over 70 is ready for a nursing home, despite all the hand-wringing about Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole. Dole, 72, would be the oldest man to enter the Oval Office for the first time if he wins in November.

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But if you think Dole's age alone means he shouldn't be seeking the White House, you need to meet more folks such as Michaux, Winnie Zerne, Gus Dritsas and John E. Saunders.

Like Dole, they are part of a generation that is redefining what it means to be old in America. They're living longer, often more actively, and in better health than people did just a few decades ago. For many, the seventh decade of life has become the start of growing old rather than the end of life.

By classic definition, Lud Michaux is retired. He's a former Marine Corps officer who fought in three wars and was wounded in two, and he was president of McDonogh School during the 1970s, when the then-boys private school did away with military uniforms and admitted girls.

But he's hardly inactive. After his daily Y workouts, he devotes at least three full days a week to two volunteer jobs -- in McDonogh's development office and with a multimillion-dollar foundation that helps city kids stay in college.

"It's a sin just to sit around," he says. And he bristles at the idea of people objecting to Dole's candidacy just because of his age, even though his own active life doesn't approach the pressures of the presidency.

He apparently has lots of company. Age, in and of itself, is not a factor in Dole's candidacy for as many as three-quarters of American voters, if several polls taken in the past two years are accurate.

Still, voters above 65 are more likely than younger voters to regard Dole's candidacy as dicey simply because of his age. A Gallup Poll in mid-March found that as many as half of independent and Democratic voters over 65 had such reservations, although only a quarter as many older Republicans agreed.

Yet, in this year's Arizona and Iowa primaries, for example, Dole received more support from voters of his generation than any other Republican candidate.

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Of course, Dole is no sit-around septuagenarian. His grueling schedule as Senate majority leader and GOP presidential candidate would exhaust many people years younger. Still, his age makes him the butt of jokes by late-night comedians and not-so-subtle attacks by Democrats. The question is whether it should.

Gerontologists say that, given sound health, turning 72 simply does not mean the end of active, productive lives for an expanding number of Americans.

Dr. Robert P. Roca, director of geriatric services at Sheppard-Pratt Health System and a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member in psychiatry, says "young people don't have a monopoly on ambition or an appetite for work."

Aging, he points out, does not equate with being feeble. That's an important distinction to grasp as the proportion of older Americans grows, with baby boomers -- those born post World War II -- just beginning to give that percentage a significant upward jolt.

Remaining vital

"If you can age without being sick, you can remain quite vital, Roca says. "There are people who function at a very high level" well into their elder years, despite others who pull back from activity and life.

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Why that dichotomy occurs is one of the big questions in gerontology, he points out, with evidence indicating that staying active mentally and physically enhances your chances of living longer.

Dr. Roca also says that for people such as Dole "who have had a lifelong ambition to do something and get a chance to really do it, that's tremendously energizing."

And if you add such a powerful objective to the fact that people in late middle age tend to sort through their life expectations and refocus on what's possible in their remaining years, the result can be unusually productive senior years.

There's a school of psychologists and other researchers who contend that in terms of mental capability, Americans are a decade or more younger these days than they are chronologically. In other words, "old" just a couple decades ago is now "middle-aged."

Want an example? Meet Winnie Zerne, of Crownsville.

At 75, having retired after decades of managing her husband's medical practice in Chester, Pa., she's tinkering with a new business, Nature's Pallet, making note cards adorned with her own exquisite nature photography.

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This former registered nurse zips around the Internet on her new computer. Oh, don't forget that book of children's songs the part-time professional organist of more than 40 years has had illustrated and would like to publish. Zerne thinks it would make a nice complement to the two records of Pennsylvania Dutch music and original children's songs she has cut. And she's published two books. "I'm just a creative person," says this grandmother of nine, explaining her energy level and acknowledging that some people her age are slowing down, becoming couch potatoes.

"But I couldn't do that," she says. "I view television as an intruder. I like to think for myself."

Better than ever

Whether due to better nutrition, more mental stimulation, improved housing or earlier preventive health measures, Americans are living longer and often in better health than ever before.

A white American male who reaches 70 in good health can expect, statistically, to live another 12.3 years, good news, of course, for the Bob Doles among us. If you reach 80 in good health, chances are great that you'll last another decade and may even join the rapidly growing ranks of American centenarians.

When Dole, who will be 73 on July 23, was born in 1923, the life expectancy for a white male in this country was just over 58. But now, having survived serious World War II wounds and a bout with prostate cancer in 1991, his life expectancy probably exceeds 82.

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In addition to the intellectual stimulation from his work, Dole remains vital by working out on a treadmill on a regular basis.

That combination of mental and physical activity is what is needed to keep older people healthy, says Dr. Gus Dritsas, 68, a retired vascular surgeon and longtime chief of surgery for Good Samaritan Hospital. He follows his own advice by sculpting, painting, boating and using a treadmill at the Towson Y.

"I did a great number of surgeries on clogged-up vessels," he says. "I saw first-hand the effects of a sedentary life."

Health, of course, is key to longevity, and there's no question that serious illness -- heart failure and cancer, to name the deadliest duo -- shortens the futures of many as they grow older.

Still, the small number of older Americans in nursing homes might surprise you -- about 5 percent of those over 65 at any given time, and some researchers think that number would be halved, given a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

John E. Saunders is about as far away from a nursing home as anyone you could imagine. At 74, the Randallstown resident says he puts in more hours a week now at two "jobs" than he did during 31 years of government service with the military and in social-service agencies in Baltimore and Washington.

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He's chairman of the bustling, open-every-day Forest Park Senior Center in Baltimore. He's also treasurer and a hands-on manager of a community-based group that is renovating a Liberty Heights Avenue shopping complex. He got into commercial real estate accidentally, through fighting the blighted shopping center's owner with a civic association. Then he helped organize investors to buy the strip outright.

Ducking references to Dole's politics, Saunders says, "I don't think anyone should make a decision on a person just because of age. You need to look at other attributes -- what it is we want that person to do and if the person is equipped to do it. Is it age that should be the determining factor, or is it the physical and mental ability of a person to be able to continue?

"I don't want to prevent younger people from having an opportunity, but we need to have this blend of people who have a variety of experiences."

Eye of beholder

With more than 12 percent of the population now 65 or older and the number expected to grow to 20 percent in the next 30 years, "too old" seems to be more in the eye of the beholder than a label that can be casually applied to someone who reaches retirement.

Which is not to say voters will give Dole his dream job come November; a number of polls indicate that he faces more trouble from Democrats than from age.

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Still, his age persists as an issue for some. Several University of Maryland Baltimore faculty members informally surveyed newspapers, magazines and broadcast transcripts during the primaries. They found that age was eight to 16 times more likely to be mentioned in association with Dole than with any other candidate.

But think about it: This is the same Dole who ran for president at 56, only to be beaten in the 1980 GOP primary by another politician many Americans supposedly thought was too old, Ronald Reagan, who was 69.

Like Reagan, Dole has a consistent retort to those who claim he's too old. "It's not a matter of your chronological age," says the candidate, who earlier this year likened himself to the Energizer Bunny. "It's a matter of your health."

Baltimore's on-the-go Lud Michaux applies his own spin to what "too old" means: "When I was 30, I thought anyone 50 was old," he says. "Now, it's anyone 10 years older than I am."

Pub Date: 5/07/96


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