Frailty in older people

Frailty is a common problem for older people. It increases the chance of developing serious health problems.

Key points about frailty

  1. Frailty is considered a long-term condition in older people. 
  2. If you are an older adult with frailty, you are at higher risk of other health problems in the event of stress or illness.
  3. Frailty can be caused by a health problem and can cause more health problems. 
  4. The key to managing frailty is early recognition and careful planning.
  5. Frailty can't be reversed but there are measures to help prevent its progression.

What is frailty?

In common language, frailty means 'weak and vulnerable'. In older adults, frailty refers to the loss of physical, cognitive or social ability to recover from illnesses or stressful events. If you are frail, even a minor change, such as being prescribed a new medicine or a minor infection, can cause a dramatic change to your state of health. 

Frailty is not defined by old age. While frailty is more common in older adults, just because you are older doesn't mean you will be frail. Older people with frailty are often more resilient to health challenges than people who have frailty at a younger age. 

Why is the diagnosis of frailty important?

The diagnosis is important because if have frailty, you are at higher risk of other health problems if you have a stressful event or an illness. This may affect the decision made by your healthcare providers in regard to investigations or treatment of your condition. 

Older people with frailty are at higher risk of:

  • falls
  • immobility
  • incontinence
  • confusion
  • being admitted to hospital and long hospital stays
  • requiring nursing care
  • side effects for new medicines
  • major change in health state due to a minor problem such as a mild infection.

What are the causes and risk factors of frailty?

Frailty can be caused by a health problem and can cause more health problems. For example, a fall in an older adult can affect muscle strength and mobility, causing frailty. On the other hand, if an older adult is frail, he or she is more susceptible to falls. 

Common risk factors of frailty include:

How is frailty diagnosed?

Because there is no one factor that makes a person frail, frailty is, in essence, a clinical diagnosis. This means there are no specific tests. Your doctor makes a diagnosis by taking into account the overall interaction of many factors, including health conditions, weight and physical function.

They will consider:

  • your walking speed and physical activity status
  • your grip strength
  • whether you need help with daily activities such as household chores
  • your weight and body mass index (BMI).

There are a number of different scores and questionnaires developed and used all over the world to help health professionals diagnose frailty, but there isn’t a standard one used in New Zealand. Examples of these include the Rockwood Clinical Frailty Score and the Edmonton Frail Scale

How is frailty managed?

The key to managing frailty is early recognition and careful planning. This can help avoid some of the impacts of frailty when your healthcare providers make decisions about your health.

Some of the things your healthcare providers may do include:

  • reviewing your medicines regularly and remove unnecessary medicines to avoid potential harms of one or more medicines (polypharmacy)
  • conducting regular checks of your health status, including your physical and mental health 
  • assessing and providing specific needs for care and support 
  • reviewing your home circumstances to reduce risk factors that can cause falls
  • discussing with you about having an advanced care plan in the event of illness or falls
  • supporting healthy lifestyle choices.

How can I prevent frailty?

Unfortunately, frailty can't be reversed but there are measures to help prevent its progression. These include the following:

Read more about preventing frailty

What support is available with frailty?

Below are some support services and information designed to meet the needs of older people. 

  • Age Concern NZ works to promote the rights, quality of life and wellbeing of older people around New Zealand. 
  • Carers New Zealand is a national information centre for family carers who support frail older family members or friends.
  • Eldernet New Zealand provides comprehensive, up-to-date information about services available for older people (eg, home help services, respite care, residential care, dementia care and community groups).
  • Hub of Hope NZ is a non-profit organisation that equips and mobilises caring people to provide spiritual support for those at the end of their lives and their whanau.
  • Live Stronger for Longer provides information for older people and their carers about preventing falls and fractures (funded by ACC, Ministry of Health and Health Quality & Safety Commission).
  • New Zealand Home & Community Health Association provides information on available home health care services.
  • Seniorline is a national service that aims to help older people who are considering rest home or long stay hospital care, or who are already in care.
  • Sorted provides information on managing your money and moving into a rest home or retirement village. Its living in retirement section provides you with information in your semi-retired/retired years and how best to manage your nest egg.
  • SuperGold Card is a discounts and concessions card issued free to all eligible seniors and veterans.

Read more about services for older people

Learn more

The following links provide further information about frailty. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Live Stronger for Longer, NZ 
Frailty and multimorbidity Patient Info, UK 
Frailty NHS, UK 

References

  1. Defining and recognising frailty Health Quality & Safety Commission, NZ, 2019
  2. Health and frailty assessment for older adults Auckland Regional HealthPathways, NZ, 2019
  3. Frailty in older people: a discussion BPAC, NZ, 2018

Reviewed by

Dr Helen Kenealy is a geriatrician and general physician working at Counties Manukau DHB. She has a broad range of interests and has worked in a variety of settings including inpatient rehabilitation, orthgeriatrics and community geriatrics.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Helen Kenealy, geriatrician and general physician, Counties Manukau DHB Last reviewed: 31 Aug 2020