Clinicians and researchers working with older persons often are concerned that their patients will develop a syndrome called frailty. Frailty is usually defined by the occurrence of muscle weakness, slow walking speed, exhaustion, weight loss, and low levels of physical activity.
Frailty may make you think about someone who is quite old and infirm, but at least some people think of frailty as a physical equivalent to developing cognitive problems. Pre-frailty (having just a few of the characteristics of frailty) may be like mild cognitive impairment, a milder form of memory or other cognitive problems that may lead to dementia.
From this point of view, preventing frailty may be a route to preventing decline. Although frailty is defined by things like slow walking and muscle weakness, research shows that frailty is associated with memory problems and depression.
It might seem odd that muscle strength and walking speed go along with memory and depression. But besides the research that show they are related, there’s a good reason why they are linked. Frailty has been linked to higher levels of markers of inflammation such as the pro-inflammatory substances called cytokines. There are substances in your body that are increased when you are sick, but they also increase as you get older.
Evidence suggests that low grade but chronic inflammation may be a key factor in aging. Researchers are still studying the best ways to reduce the effects of inflammation, but it’s likely that exercise reduces levels of inflammatory substances. It is also possible (but not proven) that antioxidant supplements and some diets may help to reduce inflammation. These same things may help prevent frailty. Exercise may be an important defense against developing frailty as well as helping with cognitive decline.