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Journal Articles

from the Pro Physical Therapy Staff

Aging and Growing Stronger

In recent years, the trend in the healthcare system has changed its focus from a medical model, diagnoses and treatment, to a preventative model. The preventative model uses knowledge of medical and social science to promote prevention of disease, improve quality of life, and eliminate health disparities. At this time, healthcare practitioners, especially physical therapists, are encouraging patients in preventative measures. These preventative measures include but are not limited to a daily exercise program containing balance, strengthening and stretching exercises, diet and nutrition education, and postural awareness.

Physical therapists have an overwhelming knowledge of rehabilitation techniques. From these techniques it is thought that therapists are able to assess and treat dysfunction. However, one of the most overlooked aspects of physical therapy is its role in preventing loss of structure, disease and dysfunction in the body. Therapists have a wide knowledge base of the body in regards to physical mobility, balance, posture, fatigue, and diet/nutrition putting them at the forefront of the prevention process. As healthcare practitioners it is our job to present our knowledge to the community in an attempt to promote health and wellness a conversely prevent the disease process.

Currently, many senior citizens do no believe that exercise is for them. They look at exercise as something done by adolescents and athletes. They feel that they cannot see the effects of the exercise and don’t realize that one can slow down the aging process and increase his/her strength well in their 90’s.

Many elders feel that when they have aches and pains they should rest and stay inside. In today’s generation, it is becoming more known that rest is necessary for the first few days but then one needs to regain function and mobility to prevent atrophy of the body.

Proper education of exercise techniques is necessary to avoid injury. Strength, stretching, and balance training are mainstays of an exercise program. Strength training will help to prevent the loss of bone density and muscle mass that can lead to physical disability and weakness. When combined, strength and balance training can also significantly reduce the high risk of falls in the elderly population. Physical therapists are capable of designing and implementing these treatment plans to meet the diverse needs of elderly clients. With extensive knowledge of the aging process, disease progression, pharmacology, muscles, joints, and exercise, there is no one more qualified to educate today’s aging population. These exercises are specifically designed to maximize the quality of life and functional ability of each patient. Physical therapists will help the older community reach their goals of activity and healthy living thus maintaining their client’s independence.

As the aging process progresses, changes throughout the body occur. Chronic disease cannot be prevented by medications and vaccines. Common diseases of the elderly include heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. These directly correlate to what people do or do not do on a daily basis. “Eighty percent of those over 65 years of age have at least one chronic health condition”. Many health behaviors lead to the development of these chronic diseases. Those include tobacco use, lack of physical activity, and bad nutrition. This is a clear sign that healthy behavior choices through community programs and education from healthcare providers are necessary in order to reduce the prevalence of chronic disease.

Three other prevalent dysfunctions that are seen in the elderly are arthritis, cancer, and impaired cardiovascular function. Arthritis is a common disability in the United States. It has been found that regular exercise reduces pain and stiffness in joints and increases strength, flexibility, and endurance. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States but can be controlled by modifying at least one of the aforementioned risk behaviors. Following heart disease is cancer, the second most common cause of death. It is controllable through preventative techniques, education for early detection, and treatment.

According to the CDC, physical activity:

- Lowers overall mortality
- Lowers risk of coronary heart disease
- Lowers risk of colon cancer
- Lowers risk of diabetes
- Lowers risk of developing high blood pressure. Exercise also lowers blood pressure in individuals who have hypertension.
- Lowers risk of obesity
- Improves mnood and relieves symptoms of depression
- Improves quality of life and functioning
- Improves function in persons with arthritis
- Lowers risk of falls and injury
- Lowers risk of breast cancer
- Prevents loss of bone and fracture after menopause
- Lowers risk of developing depression
- Improves quality of sleep

With aging, muscle strength and endurance decrease and fatigue increases thus putting elders at risk for falls. “In the United States, one of every three persons aged 65 years and older falls each year. Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of injuries, hospital admissions for trauma, and deaths due to injury”. Falls most often result in fractures due to decreased bone density and osteoporosis. Hip fractures are the most common. Falls are proven to be preventable with proper prevention strategies. Preventions strategies for falls include an exercise program to increase overall strength, balance, posture, and flexibility.

As the aging process takes its course elders may experience chronic diseases, injury, and changes in mental health. The elderly population are at risk to develop arthritis, impaired cardiovascular health, cancer (colorectal and breast), diabetes, epilepsy, increased weight, and oral health problems. Incidence rates of falls and loss of balance are increasing and the number of active elders is decreasing. Increasing the strength and flexibility of the elderly will affect all systems of the body. Daily exercise will improve balance and equilibrium, endurance, strength and flexibility, immune system response, and mental health all improving one’s well being at the same time.

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