Want to know what you can do now to increase your chances of a long and healthy retirement? A new study has revealed the modifiable risk factors present in middle-age that can make all the difference to our levels of frailty in later life.
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The team of researchers, led by Professor Eric Brunner at University College London, assessed more than 6,000 people – taking into account lifestyle, health issues, social status and even certain blood chemicals – at around the age of 50. They were then reassessed 18 years later to determine which factors appeared to have had the biggest impact on frailty.
Someone is defined as frail if they have three or more of the following:
- unexpected and sudden weight loss
- muscle weakness
- slowness when walking
- low levels of activity
Frailty is the most common condition leading to death among elderly people who are not in hospital or a nursing home, according to a 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
What are the five warning signs?
The main risk factors that had impacted a person's chances of becoming frail in this latest study were:
- low activity levels
- high body mass index (BMI)
- a high presence of specific chemicals in the blood, C-reactive protein and/or interleukin-6, both of which are linked to inflammation
'These blood chemicals appear to be very strong and independent indicators of frailty,' says Professor Brunner. 'They operate in a very subtle way, with the damage gradually building up over decades. You wouldn't know they were there unless you happened to be tested for them, and that's not something the NHS does as routine at the moment.
'What we do know, however, is that they're produced by fat cells – so people who are overweight or obese are far more prone to them. If you're in poor shape and eating a high-fat diet at 50, you're in danger of provoking this inflammatory, heart-harming response over time. They're also associated with autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.'
Why body fat is a health risk
What can you change now?
So while more research is needed before scientists can fully understand the inflammatory processes that lead to frailty, we can still take steps to reduce our levels of these blood chemicals by reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
Giving up smoking, staying physically active, eating a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and limiting alcohol intake are all key to overall good health, of course – and now is the perfect time to start adopting these healthier habits.
'Frailty isn't just an issue for later life and shouldn't be seen as an inevitable part of getting old,' insists Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the new study. 'This research shows that, by taking steps to ensure we are healthy going into middle age, we can avoid getting on the path to a frail old age.'
What else makes a difference?
Unsurprisingly, diseases such as diabetes, depression and heart disease can affect the risk of being frail in later life, according to the new study.
The scientists also uncovered some key socio-economic factors, which could help shape future health ageing policy and initiatives. You are more likely to be frail if you're a woman, non-white or living alone. And those with a lower income were more than three times as likely to be frail than those of significantly higher social and economic standing.
Ultimately, though, the findings can be seen as good news, says Professor Brunner: 'By targeting how active someone is, encouraging a healthy lifestyle and understanding more about how inflammation is linked to frailty in later life, we could improve the health of our ever-ageing population.
'Current healthy ageing policy focuses on early prevention, mostly before someone turns 50, but our research shows that it is never too late to look after your health and improve your chances of a healthy and independent later life.'