A new study of the over-70 crowd casts doubt on the notion that most seniors are living generally healthy, active lives well into the golden years.
Researchers at Yale University reported Monday that more than three-quarters of elderly people stay in bed for at least half a day or cut down on their usual activities due to an illness or injury at least one month during the year.
Yet the researchers also found that many of the seniors did not seek medical attention when they felt forced to slow down or lie down, a sign that they and their families may not realize that cutting back on activities indicates an overall decline in health.
"Restricted activity should not be accepted as a normal part of aging by patients, families or physicians," said Dr. Thomas Gill, an associate professor of medicine at Yale's School of Medicine and lead investigator for the study. The research was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
"When restricted activity persists, older people should see their physicians for an evaluation, and physicians should be attentive to the multiple potential causes for restricted activity among their older patients," Gill said.
The scientists followed a group of 754 New Haven, Conn., residents, aged 70 and older, doing monthly telephone interviews for an average of 15 months. None of the participants lived in a nursing home or other facility.
Gill and colleagues at the Yale Program on Aging found that 76.6 percent reported having to restrict their activities because of their health during at least one month and 39.3 percent reported they'd restricted activities for two consecutive months.
On average, those in the survey identified more than four different health complaints as a cause for their restricted activity. The most common were fatigue, pain or stiffness in joints, cold or flu symptoms and difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath. Other reasons cited less frequently included: fear of falling, leg pain when walking, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, feeling depressed, feeling anxious or worried, having a family member or friend become seriously ill, experiencing the death or loss of family member or friend, and chest pain or tightness.
The study also found that women had higher rates of restricted activity than men did. For six of the common problems, women had a 50 percent higher reported rate than men: fear of falling, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, feeling depressed, felling anxious or worried, and serious illness or death of a family member or friend.
Gill noted that other studies done in recent years to assess restricted activity among the elderly have been limited to one-time assessments, and have suggested that only a minority of elderly people living out in the community experience difficulties getting around.
"Our study is the first to carefully document how common restricted activity is among older persons and to identify what causes it," he said. "This is important because restricted activity may be a key marker of early decline that could allow doctors to more effectively target patients for preventative or restorative efforts."
While people in the study were more likely to use health care services during the months when they restricted their activity compared with months that they felt able to get around, they often didn't seek out help when they restricted activities. In fact, they reported that about one-third of the doctor visits they made during months with restricted activity were for routine follow-up rather than appointments made because of the problems that they were experiencing.
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