Fact: Frailty can be prevented and treated.

Number: 2
Year: 2023

Many people worry about ageing because they associate it with increasing frailty. Let us examine this notion from the perspective of research.

A women over sixty stretching outside, smiling

Frailty refers to a state of vulnerability often associated with ageing or chronic illness. Becoming frail means having fewer resources to draw upon – in other words, having less physiological strength, declining cognitive function and a reduced ability to bounce back from illness or injury.

This state of increased vulnerability can further affect the physical, mental and social well-being of the person affected, leading to an increased risk of hospitalisation, poor surgical outcomes and earlier death in older adults.

The median age in the European Union as last recorded by Eurostat in 2022 was 44.4 years. This means that half of the population living in the EU has reached at least their mid-forties.

Although people are living longer lives all around Europe, many are at risk of developing long-standing illness, multiple health conditions or mobility problems in their later years. Unfortunately, data show that this trend has been increasing over the past two decades.

However, growing old does not necessarily have to also mean becoming more and more frail. Not all older people are frail and, even more importantly, frailty is not irreversible. It can be prevented and treated to enable a healthier life.

More and more evidence finds that lifestyle modifications can play a significant role in managing frailty, for example: regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and proper medical care as well as age-friendly environments.

More specifically, one study from Japan found that pre-frail older women aged 70 to 84 living in community dwellings can recover locomotor functions such as handgrip strength, balance and walking speed. This can be achieved via programmes that target nutrition and physical activity in old age [1].

Another study found that older adults with low care needs, typically aged 65 to 85, can delay the onset of frailty by using community-based day services (such as recreational activities and functional training) or home-based personal assistance services (like housekeeping) [2]. Together, both studies show the value of adult day services and healthy ageing habits in preventing frailty.

People have different capacities during the life course. Developing right care environments can build on these capacities. This way, ageing can be an opportunity for both individuals and policymakers to sustain physical, mental and social wellbeing in older age.

Being ready to cope with demographic challenges is the responsibility of every one of us. The FutuRes Project examines how policymakers can ensure that health and social care is geared to the needs of older persons in a coordinated and meaningful way.

Andreea Piriu, Assistant Professor with focus on Health, Labour and Education Economics
Aleksandra Torbica, Associate Professor for Health Economics and Healthcare
Bocconi University

Further reading related to this Myth Bust:

1Find the Japanese study on improving the physical abilities of older women here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jamda.2014.12.005 

2Find the study about delaying the onset of frailty here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jamda.2023.05.036 

Photo by: Age friendly image library