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Sedentary Lifestyle Impairs Arthritic Elderly

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April 13, 2005

A sedentary lifestyle in older adults with arthritis, particularly women and minorities, is associated with declining ability to perform basic functional tasks of daily living, a Northwestern University study has found.

Dorothy Dunlop and colleagues from Feinberg School of Medicine and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago described the findings of their study of over 5,700 women and men aged 65 and older with arthritis in an article published in the April issue of the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism. Dunlop is research associate professor in the Northwestern University Institute for Health Services Research and Policy Studies.

The researchers found that lack of regular vigorous physical activity almost doubled an arthritis patient’s odds for functional decline and eventual disability in basic daily tasks essential to maintaining independence.

Study data showed that, over the course of two years, nearly 14 percent of the study participants experienced a measurable decline in their ability to carry out higher-level daily activities, such as preparing hot meals, shopping for groceries, making telephone calls, taking medications and managing money, as well as such basic tasks as walking across a room, dressing, bathing, eating, using the toilet and transferring from a bed.  

The researchers assessed various risk factors, including age, education, income level and the toll of other adverse health conditions in this group, and also took note of potentially unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol use, extreme weight gain or loss and sedentary lifestyle.

Sedentary lifestyle was the most prevalent risk factor, reported by over 64 percent of the study participants.

Functional ability deteriorated more frequently among women (15 percent) than men (11 percent) and substantially more frequently among minorities (18 percent Hispanics and close to 19 percent African Americans) than whites (around 13 percent).

The high rates of functional decline among older women and ethnic minorities with arthritis were attributed to the burden of added ailments, particularly diabetes, stroke, vision loss, depression and cognitive impairment. No alcohol use (moderate drinking was found to have a protective effect) also was a risk factor.

“The strong association between lack of regular vigorous physical activity and subsequent functional deterioration in this national arthritis cohort is particularly important from a public health point of view, since this risk factor is very common among persons with arthritis and can be changed through intervention,” Dunlop said.

To provide a clearer picture of the benefits of exercise for even older arthritis patients, the researchers estimated the expected two-year rates of functional decline if all the participants had regularly engaged in exercise of physical activity. According to their calculations, the functional deterioration could have been reduced by as much as 32 percent.

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States. Nearly 60 percent of Americans aged 65 and old suffer with some form of this joint disease. By 2010, arthritis is projected to afflict almost 40 million Americans over age 65, potentially escalating the ranks of senior citizens with disabilities that can jeopardize independent living.

This study was supported in part by funding the National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases and the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research.

Topics: Research