Getting older and frailer is something that we are all going to experience unless we die of something else. We are liable to lose weight, particularly muscle mass, tire very easily, have muscle weakness and be unable to perform our usual activities, and we will walk, if at all, much more slowly.
Along with the obvious external signs, our hearts, kidneys, immune system and bones will weaken. We are more likely to become diabetic, get dementia and other neurological disorders, break bones and get cancer. Our senses dull too, with poor vision, hearing and balance problems. Our appetites dull and we will eat less.
In the USA, a quarter of over 65s are considered frail. Other disease processes could be going on as well as simply getting more frail with age. Poverty, lonliness, poor diet, polypharmacy and cognitive decline make the situation worse.
More than 70% of frail people have two or more chronic diseases. The commonest are hypertension and osteoarthritis. Insulin resistance leads to type two diabetes. The combination makes falls and fractures more likely than people with simple frailty.
Cardiac failure, anaemia, osteoporosis occur. Parkinson’s disease, Alziehmer’s, Vascular Dementia and Depression are several times more common in the frail population. Cancers, infections and a poorer response to vaccination occur.
Drug reactions are more of a problem in this group of people. They have accumulated more diseases and symptoms and thus more drugs, but they also have a lower body mass and poorer kidney and liver function so that drugs accumulate more easily in the system. Some drugs cause confusion, instability and falls. A study in a geriatric day hospital showed that on average a person was on 15 different medications and that you can expect about nine of these to have the potential for some problem.
Diogenes and Havisham syndrome refers to a situation where an elderly person lives in socially isolated and filthy conditions. They continue to neglect themselves and are resistant to change. This is more common in those suffering from dementia.
Pressure ulcers may occur unless nursing care is of a very high standard. Elder abuse can sometimes occur when demands on carers exceed what they can provide.
Although a major sign of frailty is weight loss, you can get a condition called sarcopenic obesity. The person still has too much body fat, but the muscle mass is very low. This population is increasing in numbers as the obesity epidemic continues.
The more frail a person is, the less well they come through surgery successfully.
Hypothermia is more likely in frail people, particularly older age groups, women, more chronic disease eg diabetes, social isolation and those who have sustained a hip fracture.
So, not too much to look forward too! I hope this information will help those of you who care for elderly relatives. When we are looking after ourselves, it is important to keep our muscle mass up to reduce sarcopenia and the difficulty mobilising that is a cardinal sign of the problem of normal aging.
Adapted from Frailty Syndrome- Medico legal considerations. Roger W. Byard, University of Adelaide, Australia. Printed in Forensic and Legal Medicine. Volume 30 Pages 34-38. Elselvier.