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Assisted Living Facilities Should Look Out for Residents with Slow Walking Speed and Depressive Symptoms to Prevent Disability

The aging population in Japan is the fastest growing in the world—by 2035, one out of every three people will be over the age of 65. With such a rapidly increasing aging population, combating age-related health issues, like physical and mental frailty or illness, is becoming critical. It is crucial that older adults maintain as much functional independence as long as possible. Thus, it is important that long-term care facilities, such as assisted living communities, be able to identify incident disability risk factors for their residents.

Physiological, psychological, and social factors influence disability onset in older adults. Gait speed decline is one of the most significant predictors. Age-related declines in gait function can indicate dysfunction of any associated systems, including the musculoskeletal, neurologic, or circulatory systems. Thus, examining older adults’ gait function is helpful in identifying incident disability risk. Gait speed is an easy but significant clinical marker of current health and well-being. It is a very useful predictor of health problems including disability in older adults.

Apart from mobility declines, mental illnesses such as depressive symptoms are incident disability risk markers. Depressed mood often leads to unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking and lack of physical activity, as well as somatic symptoms, such as sleep deprivation and fatigue. These can worsen the symptoms of some medical problems and ultimately diminish functioning. Moreover, several additional studies suggest that late-life depression influences subsequent disability or hinders disability recovery.

Slow gait speed and depressive symptoms are often experienced by older adults and frequently co-occur. Both phenomena can lead to poor health outcomes like disability. Because it remains unclear if older adults with these two conditions are truly at higher risk of incident disability than with either condition alone, a recent study sought to examine this concept in Japanese older adults using longitudinal cohort data. The study found that it may be necessary for older adults with both risk factors to get early detection, as well as physical and psychological intervention.

For older adult residents in assisted living facilities, staff should regularly check for these kinds of factors in order to prevent further decline in health and well-being and maintain physical and psychological functioning.