What to Know About Frailty in Older Adults

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on April 07, 2023
4 min read

Growing older often means moving slower than before or getting tired faster. But some older people can become very weak and everyday activities can become hard to do. This may be due to a health condition called frailty.

Frailty is more than just becoming slower and weaker. An older adult can be considered frail if a combination of these two things occurs:

  • The person feels very weak, tired, and like they have no energy.
  • The person has been experiencing weight loss without changes in diet or exercise.

The longer you live, the greater the chance that frailty will ensue. Women have a higher incidence than men. This is possibly because women tend to live longer, increasing the likelihood that they become frail. 

Frail people can find it difficult to do everyday tasks. These can include getting in or out of bed, getting dressed, using the toilet, or moving around the house. They may feel off-balance, weak and worry about falling.

If you experience three or more of the following, you may have frailty:

  • Unintentionally lost 10 or more pounds in the past year
  • Feel weak and have trouble standing without help from someone else
  • Experience reduced grip strength
  • Feel exhausted, where everything you do takes a big effort, or you struggle to get moving for 3 or more days per week
  • Less active and don't move around the house as much or exercise as you used to
  • Walk slowly, where it takes you more than 6 or 7 seconds to walk 15 feet

Age. As you age, the way your body functions changes. You might slow down, feel aches and pains, or take longer to do things. Some older adults, but not all, may experience these things and become frail as well.

Disease. Adults with other health conditions, such as dementia or diabetes, may be more likely to become frail or become frail faster.

Chronic conditions. The cause of frailty in older adults is often tied to chronic inflammation or immune system activation. This is the body's process of fighting against things that harm it such as infections, injuries, and toxins in an attempt to heal itself.

In a frail person, this inflammation occurs more than it normally would and creates an ongoing strain in the body. It reduces muscle function and causes conditions like anemia. This is when you lack enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your body's tissues. This inflammation can also reduce your heart's ability to function well.

Sarcopenia. Older adults with frailty also experience a loss of muscle mass and strength, known as sarcopenia. Losing muscle and having less strength is a hallmark sign of frailty. If an individual is experiencing decreased levels of hormones like estrogen or testosterone, this can make frailty more severe. 

You can care for yourself or your loved one experiencing frailty by embracing lifestyle habits that will keep a frail body in relatively good condition.

Eat right. Food provides calories, which can help stop weight loss and provide energy. It can be helpful to speak with a doctor about nutrition. Consuming calories can be more important than avoiding fat.

Eat more protein. If needed, you can add protein powder to dishes. Having more protein in a diet may help keep muscles strong.

Get more Vitamin D. This vitamin may help keep bones strong and keep muscles working.

Liquid meal replacements. Incorporating liquid meals into your diet like smoothies, milkshakes, and milk may help prevent unwanted weight loss. It can also help to consume several smaller meals that you enjoy throughout the day instead of three large main meals.

Staying active. A doctor can help you or your loved one find activities that will help build balance and strength. This could include:

  • Resistance exercises, like sitting in a chair and raising the legs or pushing against a wall
  • Walking as much or as often as is recommended by your doctor
  • Practicing Tai Chi, where moving in a rhythmic and slow way helps with balance and muscle tone

Staying connected. If you or your loved one often feel tired, it may be hard to feel like going out or seeing people. But it's important to stay positive and connect with others.

Keeping the mind active. You can have fun and help stimulate the mind by playing board games or card games or completing crossword or number puzzles. Consider taking classes that encourage you or your loved one to learn something new.

Planning for extra time. When an older adult is experiencing frailty, it can cause them to move a little slower than normal. Try to be patient, plan ahead, and know that you’ll likely need a little extra time.

As adults age, they can help prevent and treat frailty by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, getting exercise, eating a healthful diet, and receiving good medical care.