Healthy Aging and the Physical Therapist

What the rehab world is doing to help adults 55+

A certain stigma applies to the term ‘aging’–people in a rough group approximating middle age find themselves described in this matter, while those who’ve already progressed through said age group are considered ‘aged’ or even the dreaded ‘elderly.’

But the truth is that no one is aging any faster than any other person. And it’s our own attitudes about what aging truly represents that stigmatizes the process.

Perhaps the best way to explain the phenomenon is that inevitably, humans face different health challenges as life progresses. In order to best meet and overcome those challenges, it’s critical to keep one’s self in the best condition possible regardless of age. It’s much easier to begin a lifetime plan for fitness at 20 than it is at 50.

But as experts in movement, physical therapists are uniquely qualified to keep persons of any age active and healthy. Here are a few ways they’re accomplishing this goal.

The ‘Goal’ of PT

When adults 55+ sustain an injury or go through a prolonged illness, physical therapy can be recommended or prescribed as “one of your options.” In reality, however, PT is often the best option.

Go ahead and rack your brain for common ailments that affect adults over 55 years of age. Addressing anything from arthritis to chronic pain, from some forms of dementia to urinary incontinence, or even simply building strength and endurance, can be accomplished through a physical therapy regimen.

Of course, no two people are the same, regardless of age, and the goals of one 70-year-old may be completely different from another. Head out to any local 5K, fundraising walk, or even a half-marathon or marathon, and odds are you’ll see at least one person of retirement age or greater. While these cases are exceptions, they’re no less meaningful than the person looking for some simple strengthening exercises for a shoulder injury incurred over decades of hard labor.

By the time they reach age 65, the majority of adults have some form or some level of arthritis, even if they aren’t experiencing symptoms. There are solutions beyond taking a pill–available therapies including aquatic therapy, electrical stimulation, or even the simple use of ice packs.

Osteoporosis is another common condition for which PTs see numerous referrals, and in this instance, the onus turns to stability, which is accomplished by performing extension exercises to improve one’s balance and posture.

Falls Prevention

Of course, as people continue to grow older, the concern often turns to avoidance of catastrophic injuries or occurrences from which recovery is difficult. In many cases, this means avoiding falls.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of adults 65 and older fall each year in the United States and 20% to 30% of people who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries. Falls are also the leading cause of death due to injuries, and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions among older adults, defined by the CDC as anyone age 65 or older. Physical therapists can help in risk reduction and prevention of fall.

Sometimes, the help comes via an extended program of strengthening and balance. Other times it can be as simple as a home visit where the physical therapist can assess the environment and make recommendations that may contribute to a lessened likelihood of a fall. Improving lighting in certain areas of the home, removing obstacles such as unnecessary furniture or carpets, installing and increasing utilization of handrails, or simply eliminating clutter can make a measurable difference.

This coming Saturday, September 22, is the now-annual Falls Prevention Awareness Day (FPAD), dedicated to promoting education about the avoidance and prevention of dangerous falls among older adults. Partners combine resources to educate others, share prevention strategies and advocate for measures in local communities that reduce the likelihood of debilitating falls. The Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy (AGPT) is particularly active in FPAD, so much that one member, Dr. Rachel Walton-Mouw, has developed a Gait Speed app that she is making free on iTunes to support National Falls Prevention Awareness Day. The app is designed to time and calculate a person’s gait speed, but it can be used as a stand-alone timer. You can use the external volume buttons to start and stop the timer.

The App is free on iTunes until September 30, and can be found here.

Of course, the big falls-related news last week was Apple’s introduction of the Apple Watch Series 4, and its brand-new falls monitoring feature. If the relevant software detects the user suffering a hard fall and remaining immobile for longer than one minute, it will alert not only emergency services but selected family or friends if so programmed.

If a fall is detected, a timer will appear on the face of the watch with a prompt to ‘Click if OK.’ Clicking the button will dismiss the alert and cancel any calls to emergency services. But if the alert is not canceled, the App notifies local emergency contacts that the user needs help, and will also sound an audible alarm to alert anyone in the area.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but the announcement and availability of such a product this close to Falls Prevention Awareness Day can only be viewed as progress for older adults.


Learn more:

Lifestyle and Therapy Approaches to Osteoporosis
This course defines osteoporosis and discusses the physiological implications that it can have on your patients that it affects. It also identifies the demographic group most at risk, reasons why this group is highly susceptible to the condition, and ways in which this group can implement lifestyle adjustments. Take Course

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