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Exercise Can Help Ward Off Frailty

Seniors and family caregivers, as well as doctors and other health care professionals, see the positive effects of staying active into old age. Both psychological and physical aspects of aging are affected by an elderly person's activity level.

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An avid tennis player who walks more than a mile every day, 79-year-old Abigail thought she was in good shape physically. It wasn’t until she tripped on a curb and fell that she realized her balance was not as good as she’d thought. However, because she was so fit, Abigail didn’t suffer any ill effects of the accident. Her family was grateful.

As individuals age, they can be more susceptible to frailty, a complex condition that puts older adults at risk of multiple health conditions. But, as Abigail discovered, exercise and staying fit help ward off the potential dangers of frailty.

So what, exactly, is frailty? Experts most often define this condition as a syndrome of physiological decline in late life, characterized by marked vulnerability to adverse health outcomes. Frail older adults are less able to adapt to stressors such as acute illness or trauma than younger or non-frail older adults.

Characteristics of frailty, medical professionals note, might include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, low physical activity, poor balance, low gait speed, visual impairment and cognitive impairment, authorities note. There can be other warning signs.

What is Age-Related Frailty?

Some view frailty as a specific problem, disease or even chronological age. But researchers found that frailty is the result of a systems failure in older adults.

Family members as well as professionals are playing a role in helping researchers define frailty, according to Stephanie Studenski, M.D., M.P.H., a geriatrician in Pittsburgh, Pa.

One study conducted in 2004 asked health care providers and family caregivers what they see when they think of frailty. The goal was to develop a measure for geriatric clinical research to represent the geriatric clinician's opinion about change in physical frailty.

"I think the thing that was most striking to me was that many family members we talked with perceived that an older person is getting more or less frail based on social and psychological factors rather than physical factors," Studenski said. "Doctors, meanwhile, focused on the physical evidence."

"Part of it, for family members, was a sense of engagement that included spirit, mood and attitude. Those were factors that family members weighed more heavily than health care providers. What I determined from that study," said Dr. Studenski, "is that we must be very careful defining frailty only in physical terms."

Failing health that leads to frailty also might feed into other fears seniors have including loss of independence.

Stay Fit

hat’s where staying active could help, providing a boost to mind, body and soul. This benefit has been substantiated by research. In a women's study released in 2009, researchers at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities discovered the important role activity plays in the fight against frailty and shed new light on what causes the condition.

Data from women ages 70-79 led researchers to discover that half of those fragile seniors had three or more systems at abnormal levels, compared with 25 percent of the pre-frail and 16 percent of the non-frail population. Physiological factors that were assessed included anemia, inflammation, and fine motor skills.

Treatments, including medications and hormone replacement, are unlikely to prevent elder frailty unless they are designed to improve multiple systems, says Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, the study's author and DeLamar Professor of Public Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. "This may explain the importance of approaches such as remaining physically active as we get older, since activity improves many aspects of biology and overall health."

Activities that encompass mind, body and soul may be an important way to keep older adults healthy. Encouraging a senior to keep moving could be one of the best ways to slow health declines.

Visit the Home Instead YouTube Channel to learn more about senior concerns.

Last revised: April 15, 2020

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. August 8, 2020 at 5:00 am | Posted by melinda lippmeier

    I am 62 and i this retirement community Ihave health problems but everyone here 80 90 even 100. Luckily I have a car and most all residents are riding a scooter or they just stay in their rooms starring at t.v. the depressing stuff news or sleeping. Most everyone is the most depressing time in their life you look in their eyes their soul is sucked right out of them since i have car i take people to appts or bring meal to them. I would rather have 2 weeks of travel. i'm not getting better just more test more medication drs more ann's more in deft to sit in a chair stare at t.v. no thank-you


  2. April 21, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Posted by Janet Harvey

    Helpful information.


  3. July 24, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Posted by Jay Drayer

    Great article! A very mind-opening piece that speaks to something really important, that is both accessible and attainable... that I think too many people tend to overlook in regard to their loved ones - socialization.


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