It’s commonly known that elderly people are at risk of falling and potentially hurting themselves. Lots of different factors can be involved in these falls, including poor vision and medication use. But some of the most important factors are musculoskeletal ones–those having to do with balance and the strength of muscles and bones.
Swiss scientists recently studied this relationship. They wanted to know how closely related musculoskeletal factors were to bone density, and whether both factors could predict an elderly person’s risk of falling.
The study was conducted at two Swiss hospitals with extended-stay geriatric units. One hundred thirty-four patients were given a mobility test, musculoskeletal tests that measured (among other things) strength and reach, and ultrasound on the heel bone to determine bone density. Patients were also asked to report their activity in sports before age 40. The study included 96 women (average age 85.1) and 38 men (average age 81.8), none of whom were able to live independently at the time of the study. Nurses at one of the two hospitals monitored falls among 94 of these patients for 12 months. A fall was considered “unintentionally coming to rest on the ground, floor, or other lower level.”
The researchers found that regular exercise (at least once per week) before age 40 had little impact on the muscle strength of the elderly patients. However, the women who exercised regularly before age 40 had significantly higher bone density. They also fell less frequently, even less than the men in the same category, who had stronger muscles. That’s interesting because strength plays a major role in balance. This led researchers to believe that the women had better posture control.
Overall, the researchers found a correlation between bone density and muscle strength and mobility. They determined that elderly women might benefit from rehabilitation focused on strength building. Men, in turn, might benefit from rehabilitation focused on improving balance. But the researchers believe that everyone would benefit from life-long physical activity. Women especially might improve bone density and improve fall risk by being athletic in their younger years.