Exercise Plays Critical Role In Helping Elderly Rebound from Health Setbacks

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • It’s been a hellacious six weeks. First my 87-year-old father fell. Fortunately, he didn’t break any bones, but he did experience more chronic back pain. And then a week later, he was hospitalized for heart issues, erratic blood pressure levels, and fluid around his lungs. He stayed in the cardiac care unit for about a week as the medical professionals worked to get these issues under control. Then he was admitted to a skilled nursing rehabilitation center for slightly more than a month. He was puny for the first couple of weeks, getting exhausted from just sitting in a chair for an hour. But starting two weeks ago he really turned the corner and started bouncing back.

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    Why? I think a combination of factors came into play.  Dad was in the care of a great nursing staff who worked with his doctor to control his blood pressure and increase his blood oxygen levels. I also would guess that much of it was due to his physical and occupational therapists who got him up and walking. It was a slow process, but he was bragging today that he had walked down the long hallway from the rehab gym to his room without stopping once.

    Some would think that all of the therapy (which involved a lot of physical activity) would be harmful to his health, especially at his advanced age. Increasingly, experts counter that belief is just a myth. “A common myth related to functional decline and aging is that older people should stop exercising and rest,” states the Illinois Council on Long Term Care website. “Many people believe that it is unwise and unsafe for the elderly to begin an exercise program, and that older persons will gain few benefits from physical activity. Indeed, of all age groups, the elderly have the most to gain by being active.”

    A new study out of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center underscores that claim. The study compared the improvement in quality of life, lipid profile, blood pressure, weight and physical performance after cardiac rehabilitation in patients. The study involved 1,112 patients, 79 of whom were over 80 years of age. All of the patients entered a 36-session outpatient cardiac rehabilitation program after being treated for coronary heart disease.

    According to the American Heart Association, cardiac rehabilitation is a professional supervised program that helps patients recover from heart attacks, heart surgery and procedures such as stenting and angioplasty. These programs offer a medical evaluation to identify the patient’s needs and limitations as well as a tailored physical activity program that involves monitoring the heart rate and blood pressure. Patients also receive counseling and education on a healthy eating plan and how to quit smoking, if they do so.

    The Wake Forest researchers found the rehabilitation program increased the older patients’ quality of life. In addition, systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) decreased in older patients who were hypertensive. These patients also saw their low-density lipoprotein (bad) cholesterol decrease. Finally, the patients’ capacity to exercise (as assessed by the highest level of exertion they could do) improved. Similar findings were identified in the patients who were younger than 80 who went through the program.

  • Now that Dad is out of rehab, the challenge is to keep him active so he doesn’t regress.  We will have physical therapists from a local home health care organization coming in to work with him several times a week. Plus, I’ll be nagging him on the days that the therapist doesn’t come to keep walking and moving (instead of spending most of the day in bed). By rebuilding his strength and his endurance, Dad will be taking the steps -- both figuratively and physically -- necessary to remain at home so he can maintain a good deal of independence.

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    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    American Heart Association. (2011). What is cardiac rehabilitation?

    Illinois Council on Long Term Care. (nd). Debunking the myths of the aging process.

    Mehta, H. (2013). Comparison of usefulness of secondary prevention of coronary disease in patients <80 versus ≥80 years of age.  The American Journal of Cardiology.

Published On: July 30, 2013