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With age comes strength

With age comes strength

Martha Erwin and Royce Hillman are participating in a joint kinesiology-nursing research project aimed at preventing frailty in people over age 65.

Kinesiologist Christopher Ray and geriatric nurse practitioner Kathryn Daniel are convinced that frailty is not inevitable with aging. They believe it can be prevented and is treatable in the early stages, much like cancer and heart disease.

Frailty involves a progressive decline in muscle strength, unintended weight loss, decreased activity, fatigue, and slowed performance of functional tasks. A correlation exists between the presence of three or more of these indicators and increased risk of falls, long-term hospitalization, and death.

Most people assume that when they get old, they become feeble. Defusing that assumption is an emerging issue in geriatrics.

Christopher Ray

Christopher Ray, kinesiology assistant professor

Dr. Ray from the College of Education and Health Professions and Dr. Daniel in the College of Nursing are co-principal investigators on research with pre-frail elderly who exhibit one or two of the frailty criteria.

"These patients need the right kind of exercise to rebuild their strength," says Daniel, who works in a clinical practice in addition to heading the Geriatric Nurse Practitioner Program at UT Arlington. "But they don't have helpful resources and they just don't do it."

Increasing evidence supports the idea that rehabilitative interventions can limit physiological decline in the pre-frail. A University Research Enhancement Grant provided funding for the pilot program aimed at preventing frailty in people over 65 who have been assessed as pre-frail.

Daniel says many exercise programs at senior centers, although better than inactivity, have limited benefit in strength building or cardiovascular fitness. "Frequently, their primary contribution to the elderly person's well-being is social, not rehabilitative."

For the study, Ray screened volunteers over 65 and classified them as normal, pre-frail, and frail. The pre-frails were randomized into three groups. The control group will not exercise, while the second group will do a senior exercise program. The third group will participate in a more arduous progressive functional rehabilitation (PFR) program.

PFR uses technology like the Nintendo Wii, a video game console. Volunteers will be monitored during exercise, and all groups will be evaluated after 15 weeks for flexibility, postural control, strength, and bone density.

This study is only the first step for the researchers.

"We plan to use it as the basis for large-scale grant submissions to the National Institute on Aging in the National Institutes of Health," says Ray, whose goal is to create a center on aging and longevity.

The investigators hope their work will open the door to more interdisciplinary research on aging. "No one person or one discipline has all the answers," Daniel says.

She shares Ray's vision of a center where psychologists, social workers, and biomedical engineers work together to improve the well-being of the elderly.

- Sue Stevens