Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More
When you think about aging, what comes to mind? Do you see strong, vital, active older adults, or do you see weakness, loss of energy, and “winding down”?
If you see the latter, you may think that frailty is a normal part of aging. You’re not alone. For decades, we’ve thought that as we grow older, it’s normal to become thinner, weaker, and slower. We thought it was typical – and nothing to be concerned about – if an older person seemed not really sick, but not really well, either.
Now we know differently. To my pleasant surprise, frailty is gaining momentum among the medical community as a legitimate diagnosis. What does this mean? A lot. When a phenomenon is recognized as a verifiable medical condition, it can no longer be ignored. Efforts can now be made to better understand frailty in order to develop ways to prevent, delay, or even reverse it. The public can be made aware that frailty is not a normal part of aging and can be motivated to reduce the risk of frailty among themselves and those they love. In short, recognizing frailty as a medical diagnosis can create meaningful action.
How do we know that frailty is not a normal part of aging? First, we all know people who are not old but who are absolutely frail. This may be associated with other medical conditions or simply a result of poor health practices related to diet, exercise (or lack thereof), and the use of nicotine, alcohol, and other substances. The simple fact that there are younger people who are frail conflicts with the idea that frailty is a natural part of the aging process.
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Also (and here’s some good news), we all know people who are older but who are clearly not frail! It could be your 85-year-old great aunt who lives independently and walks 4 miles a day. It could be your grandfather who is still doing all of the outdoor work on his farm. Heck, it could be Betty White.
If frailty was an unavoidable part of aging, there would be no strong, vital, healthy older adults. So if you see yourself as doomed to frailty in your later years, it’s time to discard that notion and start planning for a vibrant old age.
Here are three ways to do that:
- Weight Lifting. No, you don’t have to become the next Jack LaLanne. Just add some weight training to your regular fitness routine. Many fitness centers offer user-friendly weight machines that can be adjusted to any ability or fitness level. Ask for an orientation from the fitness center director or a personal trainer. Weight training can help maintain muscle mass as you age, which makes you stronger and enhances balance.
- Walking. One of the most dangerous aspects of frailty is a slower, less steady gait because this can increase the risk of falls. By incorporating lots of walking into your daily routine, you can sustain the muscles and coordination needed to walk safely and strongly for years to come.
- Eating to Reduce Inflammation. Low-level inflammation has been linked to frailty, although it’s not clear whether this is a cause or a consequence. Either way, we already know that inflammation is bad, so take measures to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. For a great description of what this means, see this article from Dr. Andrew Weil.
Fried, L. P., & Tangen, C. M. (2001). Frailty in older adults: Evidence for a phenotype. Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 56A(3), M146-M156.