The number of people over age 65 in our country had reached 46.2 million by 2014, the latest year with complete data available. This represents about 15 percent of the U.S. population and the percentage is expected to rise to over 20 percent by 2040. There are a number of factors that explain the rising proportion of seniors in the population:
•The two decades after World War II saw an increase in births that eventually leveled off. The people born during this “baby boom” are now entering their senior years.
•Fertility has decreased at the same time that life spans have increased by about twenty years.
•There is more access to education about nutrition and maintaining good health.
•Public health programs have successfully minimized the number of deaths due to treatable illnesses.
•Preventative medicine delays or eliminates some of the infirmities involved with aging.
As a result of this growing proportion of aging citizens, use of long-term care facilities has increased. There is also a bigger burden on Medicare insurance. As the older population remains active, they are also subject to more non-aging related injuries than in the past. Health care costs have risen and meeting these needs will be a challenging task.
People over 65 years old are divided into three general categories of age. The young-old are 65-74 years old, and they are healthier than any previous generation at this age. The middle-old cohort is considered to be ages 75-84 and the old-old group is made up of those over age 85. As people age, there are changes that occur as their bodies begin to decline. Below are some of the major weaknesses requiring physical therapy in the aged.
The parts of the body that help us move become weaker as we age. This can include muscles, joints, spinal discs, cartilage and other connective tissue. Bone and joint degeneration in the elderly can lead to osteoporosis, a disease in which the bones thin out and become more brittle. This fragility can lead to bones breaking more easily.
As people age, the arteries that carry blood to and from the heart lose some of their flexibility. This is sometimes referred to as “hardening of the arteries.” The width of blood vessels may decrease as well, restricting blood flow to the heart. These changes can lead to high blood pressure and fatigue during activity.
The lungs don’t expand as well as they did in youth, and sometimes mucus secretions are thicker. Together with diminished arteries, this leads to less oxygen getting to the heart. It’s also the reason that old people who develop serious illnesses are at a greater risk of pneumonia or even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The unsteadiness that seniors sometimes feel is partly due to the reaction time between nerves and muscles slowing down as people age. This can lead to changes in the way elderly people walk, as they are careful not to move too quickly. Sometimes an older person has an unexplained tremor in one part of the body when the neural pathways cease to function the way they are supposed to.
Doctors recommend physical therapy for weakness related to old age. Remaining active is one of the best ways to slow down the degeneration of the body, along with proper nutrition and rest. Seniors are able to do even intense physical activities as long as they do so in moderation.
Housework, walking, gardening and dancing are excellent moderately strenuous activities for seniors. This level of activity should be done daily. More strenuous aerobic activity should also be engaged in for at least twenty minutes, three times a week. This can include jogging, bicycling, swimming and outdoor sports like softball.
Strength-training is one form of exercise that will keep muscles in the best shape possible, and it can even help improve issues with balance. Workouts should be done two or three times a week. The idea is to strengthen the muscles, not to build bulk, so lighter weights and more repetitions are preferable to heavy weights.
Flexibility is also important to good health, and physical therapists recommend stretching exercises to maintain a range of motion. This type of exercise will also help prevent strains and injuries during more strenuous activity. Seniors should target all of the muscle groups in the arms, legs, shoulders, neck and torso.
Developing a sensible physical therapy routine in the early senior years will make aging more pleasant and less aggravating. Remaining in the best shape possible for one’s age acts as a preventative against the rapid decline that some people experience as they get older. Seniors will be more likely to withstand illnesses and injuries without complications if they have been practicing physical therapy for the weakness they experience as they age.