Frailty and Vulnerability: Yes, you can lessen and even prevent Frailty
Written by: Susan Moore
We’ve all met an older adult who we identify as frail. Some people use the words ‘frail’ and ‘vulnerable’ to describe older adults in general. Indeed, some older adults do become frail as they age but being frail doesn’t need to be a part of the normal aging process. Frailty and vulnerability can be mitigated and, ultimately, prevented.
How do you identify frailty? It is easier to identify what frailty is when we know how it is defined.
What is Frailty?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines frailty as “weakness and lack of health or strength” (2017). Healthcare literature provides highly detailed descriptions of frailty to recognize, diagnose and treat Frailty Syndrome. Zachary Palace and Jennifer Flood-Sukhdeo describe Frailty Syndrome as the development of multiple age-related musculoskeletal changes leading to physical weakness, injury and illness (2014). In other words, Frailty Syndrome occurs in an older adult who has lost muscle and bone strength, and who is more prone to falls, fractures and vulnerability to increasingly complex illness and injury.
The bad news is – we are all at risk of frailty. As we age, our bone density, muscle strength and stamina start to change. This degeneration is a normal part of the aging process. However, the good news is that frailty does not have to be a part of aging. It can be prevented and at the very least, its impact can be lessened.
In general, frailty is diagnosed by a physician based on a number of indicators including physical strength, bone density and nutrition. Once someone is diagnosed with Frailty Syndrome, physicians will rate the degree of frailty based on someone’s ability to carry out “instrumental and non-instrumental activities of daily living” (Unknown, 2005). It is important for physicians to identify frailty indicators as early as possible so that patients have the opportunity to change or adapt their behaviours. An early diagnosis is the key to reversing the symptoms of frailty. As with most disease, the longer it takes for symptoms to be identified and a diagnosis made, the more vulnerable the patient becomes to increased risks associated with treatment of illness and injury.
Causes and Prevention of Frailty
When it comes to frailty, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
According to Humankinetics.com (Best-Martini & Jones-DiGenova, n.d.), the causes of frailty include:
- A medical condition
- A loss of one or more senses
- A chronic disorder
- A chronic disorder along with a new medical diagnosis
- Adverse changes in the musculoskeletal system
- Psychological issues
- Sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass)
- Very old age
- Nutritional imbalances
- Intellectual disabilities
- Physical inactivity
The British Geriatrics Society (2011) identifies the causes of frailty as: inactivity, low protein diet, insufficient vitamin D, smoking and obesity. Some of the causes are directly linked to illness and injury (dementia, broken bones, flu) and others are based on personal habits and behaviours.
“We have the power to change our behaviours and lessen the risk of becoming frail.”
If you or someone you know has been described as frail by peers, family or friends, or if there has been a diagnosis of frailty syndrome, you can do something(s) about it:
- Medical conditions – follow your physicians’ treatment plans including medications and therapies
- Chronic disorders (i.e. arthritis, hypothyroidism and high cholesterol) – stay physically active, rest when needed, follow a healthy diet
- Adverse changes in the musculoskeletal system – lift weights, sweat, drink water and stay active
- Psychological issues – call a friend, engage with your local community, ask for help when needed, volunteer to help others
- Nutritional imbalances – eat a well-balanced diet and take your vitamins as directed by your healthcare professional
- Physical inactivity – dance, swim, join a walking group, plant a garden or volunteer to help someone with theirs.
Frailty does not need to be inevitable. If you are concerned about your predisposition to developing frailty syndrome, speak with your doctor, a friend or family members. If you are concerned about someone else, contact the seniors’ centres in your community for information and referral to a professional who can advise you on how to help.
Susan Moore is focused on greater supports for vulnerable older adults through the development of sustainable programs. She currently works with the Jewish Seniors Alliance and the BC Association of Community Response Networks. She is completing a Master’s degree through Royal Roads University.
Best-Martini, E., & Jones-DiGenova, K. A. (n.d.). What is frailty. Retrieved from Human Kinetics: http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/what-is-frailty
British Geriatrics Society. (2011). Causes and prevention of frailty. Retrieved from British geriatrics society: http://www.bgs.org.uk/frailty-cause-prevent/resources/campaigns/fit-for-frailty/frailty-causes-prevention
Cambridge Dictionary. (2017). Dictionary. Retrieved from Cambridge Dictionary: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/frailty
Palace, Z. J., & Flood-Sukhdeo, J. (2014). The frailty syndrome. Retrieved from Today’s geriatric medicine: http://www.todaysgeriatricmedicine.com/archive/012014p18.shtml
Unknown. (2005). A global clinical measure of fitness and frailty in elderly people. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 173(5), 489-495.