Focus on Function for Healthy Aging

Written by Colin Milner, CEO, International Council on Active Aging

In its World Report on Ageing and Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) “outlines a framework for action to foster Healthy Ageing built around the new concept of functional ability. Making these investments,” WHO says, “will have valuable social and economic returns, both in terms of health and wellbeing of older people and in enabling their on-going participation in society.”

Is improved function (physical, cognitive and social) now the Holy Grail for older adults? Is a focus on functional abilities really new? How can improving these abilities help us to age well while having a positive impact on society? These are just a few of the many questions and issues addressed in the WHO report. But, let’s start with the simple question, why is function so important?

Function impacts aging well

The loss of physical, cognitive and social function has a detrimental impact on an older person’s health status, as well as on their independence and quality of life. Individuals may lose not only the ability to actively contribute to and fully participate in society and the daily life of their families and communities, but also the ability to thrive in their later years. To maximize the opportunities and minimize the challenges of longer life, older adults need to stay healthy and well for as long as possible.

As a matter of fact, a greater focus on function—physical, cognitive and social—can forestall many of the issues we see in the population over age 60.

A physically active lifestyle contributes to improved function, which directly correlates with falls management, independence, ability to work, and physical activity. Improved function minimizes disability as well as the rising cost of disease and care. It also enhances self-confidence and quality of life.

Actions Steps

What can be done to improve the functional abilities of older adults? For physicians, physical and occupational therapists, health management organizations and employers, one recommendation is to take a life course approach to functional assessments, allowing these efforts to address functional declines before their ripple effects are fully felt. An example of this is finding and addressing changes in strength or balance before they lead to loss of function, falls, or mobility issues. The first assessment may occur when a patient reaches his or her mid-30s, as this is generally the time when functional loss starts in inactive people. From there a functional assessment could be done yearly, or with a standard physical exam. In addition, professional education, programs, environments, and policies may best serve the older population through improved understanding of how function impacts society.

Another recommendation is to focus on how exercise and physical activity can impact physical, cognitive and social function. An example of this is the impact that a strength training program can have on maintaining or improving our functional abilities, such as getting up out of a chair, or off a toilet, with ease.

Whether it provides a new framework or not, the WHO report reminds us that people must maintain their health and wellbeing for as long as possible to thrive, and to maximize the opportunities and minimize the challenges of longer life. A physically active lifestyle has been shown to slow declines in function, both physical and cognitive. Regular physical activity is therefore key to the ability to stay independent with age and preserve or enhance quality of life.

Next steps

The above recommendations offer a few simple steps to address functional loss in older adults. To gain a greater understanding of “the new concept of functional ability,” download and review the WHO report. It will provide you with a framework to influence your life as well as the lives of the older adults you work with.

The question now becomes: What will you do to emphasize assessing and improving function?

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Is improved function the Holy Grail for #olderadults? @colinmilner shares thoughts on the Be Active Your Way blog!