Keys to living independently as we age

AARP shared that many people worry about not being able to move around as well when they get older. They fear they won’t be able to continue their favorite activities, visit their favorite places, or even keep up with everyday tasks.

Mobility — The ability to move or walk freely and easily — is critical for functioning well and living independently. As we age, we may experience changes in our mobility. There are many reasons for these changes, including changes in gait (how we walk), balance, and physical strength.

All of these can increase the number and severity of falls and make it harder for older adults to go out and visit with friends and family and continue doing their activities independently. Older adults who lose their mobility are less likely to remain living at home; have higher rates of disease, disability, hospitalization, and death; and have a poorer quality of life.

Researchers are working on this issue because it’s not only a matter of physical health but also the social and emotional well-being of older adults.

NIA-supported researchers are identifying risk factors for physical disability and developing and testing ways to prevent or reverse the loss of mobility to help older adults maintain independence. For example, long-running observational studies, such as the Women’s Health and Aging Study II and the Health, Aging, and Body Composition Study, examine functional decline and how it differs by race and sex.

“One of our goals is to continue focusing on research aimed at maintaining independence in mobility in old age,” said Sergei Romashkan, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the NIA Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology Clinical Trials Branch.

Older adults often lose physical function after hospitalization or falls or if they have movement-related disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. People who have lost physical function may face difficulty with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as eating, bathing, dressing, or using the bathroom without aid. Researchers are investigating ways to improve physical function following the hospitalization that would enable older adults to recover and “age in place” independently at home, avoiding costly institutional care.

A lack of physical activity or exercise can also make it more likely that a person will experience loss of mobility as they age. The increasing incidence of sedentary (sitting too much) is a growing health concern: Too many older adults don’t get enough physical activity and spend too much time sitting daily. Researchers are studying this issue and working to establish a foundation of scientific evidence on the topic to inform public health guidelines on how to interrupt sedentary behavior in ways that support healthy aging. In addition, some interventional studies have found positive results of physical activity and exercise on continued mobility. Following are examples of promising NIA-funded studies in this area.

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