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Aging Equals Frailty is Just a Myth

By Kay Van Norman

There has been an explosion of articles on how to help adults continue to “live in their own homes”. Many articles make a great case for the benefits of universal design, but I’m really bothered by their hidden undercurrent of negative expectations of aging. For example, rather than focusing on functional impairments regardless of age they heavily reference “golden years, senior access, barriers to seniors, and senior friendly”.  So along with helpful information about how to remain living in your home, is a large helping of the message that functional impairment is an unavoidable consequence of aging.

Even people who are really physically active seem to buy into the age = decline myth.  I was stunned while talking to a group of really fit hikers, bikers, and runners in their 40’s who were discussing home designs.  I heard phrases like “when I get old and can’t climb stairs” so asked them why they thought they wouldn’t be able to climb stairs as they age. I just got blank stares.  It seemed I was the only one who didn’t know the answer was obvious – because they would be old!  

The problem with that message is it’s WRONG!  Decades of research show that small amounts of functional decline are a normal part of aging. But it also shows that up to 90% of physical decline into frailty is due instead to lifestyle factors. 90%!  That should be great news because it proves that physical frailty is preventable!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for universal design.  Any one of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow and not be able to climb stairs!  What I object to is attaching the expectation of frailty onto aging.  Believing in and planning for decline as we age is an aspect of ageism that often flies under the radar, and is a sure recipe for achieving decline. Frailty with age is very common and very predictable, but it’s not inevitable.  Investing time and energy into strength, mobility and endurance will pay big dividends in lifelong vitality.

We’ve known since 1994 (yes 1994) that physical frailty is preventable and even reversible at any age!  Researcher Maria Fiatarone from Tufts University reported that 100 nursing home residents age 72-98 increased strength by an average of 113% by resistance training for 10 weeks.  People who were walking with walkers were able to use canes instead; people who were wheelchair bound were able to walk with a walker.  Since then thousands of studies have reinforced these findings.

Since prevention is the key consider where you stand.  Do you expect to be as strong and agile 5 years from now as you are today? If you answered yes, what are you doing to ensure that outcome?  Are you resistance training or enjoying activities that require moderate to heavy lifting at least twice a week on a regular basis?  If you answered yes to the first question and no to the last question, there’s a serious disconnect.  I guarantee you that if you’re NOT doing something to maintain your strength you’re losing it – at an average rate of about 1-1 ½ %/year after around age 30.  That may not sound like a lot until you do the math. You can lose 60% of your strength by age 70, 75% by age 80.  Again, it’s common and predictable, but it’s not inevitable!   

Get out and walk briskly- up hills if available!  Start a regular resistance training program.  If you’re having trouble rising from a chair, do it more!  For example, every time you sit down, stand up and sit down 3 more times. See how many knee lifts you can do during TV commercial breaks or commit to standing up and sitting down 5-10 times during each commercial break.  If you’re having functional challenges seek physical therapy intervention – age is not a diagnosis- so consciously invest in your physical function. Change your expectations of aging to fit with the latest body of research evidence and claim lifelong vitality.

Visit www.kayvannorman.com for some useful resources.   




Kay Van Norman, founder and President of Brilliant Aging, is an internationally known subject matter expert in healthy aging. She directed the Keiser Institute on Aging, serves on national and international boards, speaks internationally, and has an extensive list of publications including a Chinese translation of her latest book, Exercise and Wellness for Older Adults. An early pioneer and thought leader in senior wellness, her writing, speaking, product innovations and consulting work has substantially shaped the international active aging movement and seniors housing and care industry.


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