NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 5, 2006

Some people do not age well, often heading along a path that ends up in a medical condition known as frailty, says Tamara Harris, chief of the geriatric epidemiology section at the National Institute on Aging.  Frailty involves exhaustion, weakness, weight loss and a loss of muscle mass and strength.  It is, she says, a grim prognosis whose causes have been little understood.

Now, though, scientists are surprised to find that, in many cases, a single factor -- undetected cardiovascular disease -- is often a major reason people become frail:

  • They may not have classic symptoms like a heart attack or chest pains or a stroke, but cardiovascular disease may have partly blocked blood vessels in the brain, the legs, the kidneys or the heart.
  • Those obstructions, in turn, can result in exhaustion or mental confusion or weakness or a slow walking pace.

Investigators say that there is a ray of hope in the finding -- if cardiovascular disease is central to many of the symptoms of old age, it should be possible to slow or delay or even prevent many of these changes by treating the medical condition.

A second finding is just as surprising to skeptical scientists because it seemed to many like a wrongheaded cliché -- you're only as old as you think you are:

  • Rigorous studies are now showing that seeing, or hearing, gloomy nostrums about what it is like to be old can make people walk more slowly, hear and remember less well, and even affect their cardiovascular systems.
  • Positive images of aging have the opposite effects; the constant message that old people are expected to be slow and weak and forgetful is not a reason for the full-blown frailty syndrome, but it may help push people along that path.

Source: Gina Kolata, "Old but Not Frail: A Matter of Heart and Head," New York Times, October 5, 2006.

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