After decades of being the go-to for opening tightly sealed lids and hauling heavy furniture, it can be disheartening to watch Dad struggle to get into a jar of pickles or pick up a gallon of milk. And while it’s tempting to chalk your loved one’s weakness up to the aging process, there’s plenty that can be done to prevent frailty in the elderly.
Conditions known as dynapenia and sarcopenia both commonly affect seniors and lead to a loss of abilities that require the use of muscles. Many caregivers are already familiar with sarcopenia, which is characterized by a loss of muscle mass, but did you know that loss of strength can occur without any actual muscle loss? This is known as dynapenia, and although it appears to be an inevitable part of aging, there are ways to combat it.
What to look for
Researchers are not entirely sure why this loss of strength occurs as we age and postulate it could be due to physical changes in the muscles as well as neuromuscular changes.
However, there’s increasing evidence that strength loss poses a greater risk to the elderly than muscle loss. A review of the literature found that the association between loss of muscle strength (dynapenia) and disability (or decreased physical abilities) was significant in 90% of studies, whereas loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia) was only significant in 35%. While research into the intricacies of both are still needed, some signs of muscle weakness that could indicate an age-related loss of strength include:
- Reduced grip
- Limited knee extension
- Slowed gait
- Trouble transferring (not due to pain)
- Inability to lift objects
- Increased need for assistance with personal care
- Complaining about lack of strength
Vitamin D to the rescue
Just because seniors lose some muscle strength with age doesn’t mean they’re doomed to a rapid increase in all their care needs. In fact, a recent study found that taking vitamin D supplements decreased the likelihood of dynapenia by a whopping 78% in subjects over the age of 50.
“It’s necessary to explain to people that they risk losing muscle strength if they don’t get enough vitamin D,” Tiago da Silva Alexandre, study author and professor of gerontology at the Federal University of São Carlos in Brazil, told News Medical. “They need to expose themselves to the sun, eat food rich in vitamin D or take a supplement, and do resistance training exercises to maintain muscle strength.”
The importance of strength training
By incorporating exercise – and especially resistance training – into your loved one’s routine, you can help them prevent dynapenia-related strength loss and retain some of their physical abilities. As a result, seniors may experience greater independence and need assistance with fewer tasks than they would otherwise.
Researchers from California-based University of La Verne recommend strength training at least twice a week, noting that all major muscle groups need to be targeted. They explained that weight training should be progressive, with the amount of resistance increasing over time.
“Remember the phrase, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it’?” Heidi Huynh, an occupational therapist, told Carewell. “Exercise and physical activity help keep your muscles strong and your body moving.”
Reducing abdominal fat
An excess of fat around the midsection has long been associated with an extensive list of health problems, so it’s no surprise those with both dynapenia and large abdomens have worse outcomes—including slower gait, decreased lung function and increased difficulties with activities of daily living. On the other hand, weight loss among those struggling with simultaneous obesity and dynapenia has been shown to improve the physical and mental symptoms associated with having both conditions.
As always, discuss any weight loss plans with your loved one’s doctor. If considerable abdominal fat is an issue, consider enlisting a nutritionist or dietitian to help, in addition to any physical therapists or trainers who might be needed.
An injury in old age can lead to a loss of independence, as muscle strength is also lost from lack of use. By working with a physical therapist, seniors may be able to restore range of motion and functionality after an injury, and therefore prevent further loss of strength and independence.
Additionally, physical therapy can benefit older people already experiencing reduced muscle strength. While attempting to exercise after strength loss can be frustrating, a physical therapist may be able to help get your loved one back on track and prevent the problem from worsening. An individualized treatment plan can restore their strength and assist in planning an exercise routine that can be continued on their own or with limited supervision.
Durable medical equipment
While exercise and vitamin D can go a long way in preserving aging muscles, durable medical equipment can help make up for weakness and provide safety as well as convenience. Medicare will often cover DME, if it’s ordered by a medical professional, or you can purchase items at medical supply shops and online. A physical therapist can also suggest helpful DME and offer training on how to use it.
Some of the equipment that’s especially helpful for seniors and their caregivers includes:
Rollators can assist with transfers, mobility and balance related to muscle weakness. This one has a seat – perfect for rests – and is rated up to 350 pounds.
A shower chair that includes an extended transfer bench is ideal for seniors whose waning leg strength makes getting in and out of the tub dangerous. Be sure to switch out your standard showerhead for a handheld one.
A raised toilet seat makes for easier transfers on and off the commode.