Frailty Syndrome: What Is It and What Are Its Causes?

Frailty is when there's a decrease in physiological reserve, which exposes older people to a high risk of contracting various diseases. Find out how to identify and treat it.
Frailty Syndrome: What Is It and What Are Its Causes?
Leonardo Biolatto

Reviewed and approved by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Written by Jonatan Menguez

Last update: 30 June, 2023

Aging is a natural process in human beings. The changes that occur over time lead to an inevitable deterioration of physiological processes. This is called frailty syndrome, whereby a person becomes more vulnerable to certain diseases and disorders common to old age.

However, there’s no single way of aging. Aspects such as lifestyle and socioeconomic status play a role in the process. The term frailty is often associated with older people, but there are several ways to define it.

It fits those who are at a higher risk of death. In addition, it’s possible to identify some symptoms and treatments to reduce deterioration.

What is frailty syndrome?

The aging process unfolds in different ways around the world. In some places, life expectancy is much higher than in others. This is due to various reasons, such as socioeconomic status, access to health care, and quality nutrition.

These aspects result in a higher rate of frailty syndrome in South American countries compared to Asian or European countries. This syndrome is understood by experts as a decrease in physiological reserve in elderly people. It’s also commonly related to a lower resistance to stress.

It#s identified by an accumulation of deficits in the person’s physiological system. These range from weight loss to motor dependence to erratic gait that increases the risk of falls, injuries, and hospitalization.

Causes of frailty syndrome

It’s a syndrome associated with aging and its effects on the physiological system. A deficit in physiological reserve makes a person more vulnerable to serious diseases. In addition, it enhances and accelerates the process of deterioration.

Although the passage of time is linked to a generalized loss of all functions of the organism, frailty places the person at higher risk. This increases the chances of suffering different disorders.

Frailty syndrome.
Medical professionals know that a person with frailty syndrome is more exposed to pathologies, so they take specific measures with these patients.

Symptoms and complications

Frailty syndrome is related to different symptoms, which in turn increase the risk of suffering more serious diseases:

  • Weight loss
  • Repeated falls
  • Gait disturbances
  • Poor self-perception of one’s own health
  • Sarcopenia or decrease in muscle mass
  • The use of abundant medication and frequent hospitalizations

Identifying frailty syndrome is neither simple nor uniform, since it can manifest itself through an combination of different conditions. But there are some patterns that increase the chances of suffering from it. Among them are being a resident of a nursing home and being an oncology patient.

In addition, there are socioeconomic aspects, such as low income, old age, and recent widowhood. People who are overweight or anemic are more exposed to frailty.

What does the research say?

In general, those who suffer from frailty syndrome are twice as likely to be at risk of death than those who don’t, and this can be caused by various reasons. It also increases the likelihood of disability.

Different studies have been commissioned to better specify what frailty is, as well as to identify common patterns. For example, one published in the specialized journal The Journals of Gerontology, which elaborated a table with 5 criteria associated with this disorder:

  1. Involuntary weight loss of 4.5 kilograms per year or greater
  2. A feeling of general exhaustion
  3. Reduced walking speed
  4. A low level of physical activity
  5. Weakness and reduced strength

Physical exercise and rehabilitation of the frailty syndrome

Although it’s a preventable disorder, factors linked to the health system of each country are involved. Although there are no specific rehabilitation programs, advances and benefits derived from physical activity were identified.

Frailty syndrome can be approached from multiple perspectives, but exercise is one of the most effective methods to decrease functional disability.

Some possible benefits of doing exercise in old age are the following:

  • Increased autophagy, a regeneration mechanism at the cellular level
  • Improvement of the cardiovascular system
  • Increased strength and power
  • Reduction of oxidative stress
  • Improved stability and flexibility

Some healthy practices intervene in a favorable way to avoid suffering from this disorder. For example, not falling into inactivity, practicing regular exercise, and maintaining a suggested weight according to metabolism. It’s necessary to avoid falls and adverse reactions to medications, since they stimulate a vicious circle that increases fragility.

There are no specific treatments once it’s established. Some specialists recommend long walks and others indicate more intense physical exercise, even in people over 80 years of age.

Elderly people running.
Long walks seem to be a valid alternative for those suffering from this syndrome.

Lifestyle has an influence

Although frailty is a syndrome in the process of research and associated with unavoidable pathologies linked with old age, there are some strategies that reduce the risk of morbidity and mortality. Among them is the adoption of a healthy lifestyle that includes the practice of physical exercise and an appropriate diet.

This helps to avoid entering the cycle of frailty and deterioration. With an increasingly aging population, prevention becomes crucial in this regard.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.