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Why Seniors Become Frail

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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Frailty Facts and 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.

Researchers found that frailty is the result of a systems failure in older adults, rather than a specific problem, disease or even chronological age. 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."

What is Age-Related Frailty?

Family members as well as professionals are playing a role in helping researchers define frailty, according to Stephanie Studenski, M.D., M.P.H., who serves as director of clinical research for the University of Pittsburgh Institute on Aging.

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."

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Last revised: March 2, 2011

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. 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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