Frailty most likely to affect women, African-Americans, and low- income population

April 09, 2001

Unexplained weight loss, exhaustion, a weak grip, slow walking speed and low energy - the hallmarks of frailty - are most likely to strike women, African Americans, the less educated and the poor, according to a nationwide study of more than 5,000 older adults. Results of the multicenter study, the first to study frailty in depth, are published in the March issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.

"As physicians, we've always thought that we knew how to identify a frail person, yet there's been no agreement on how to do that and no standard definition for the condition," says Linda P. Fried, M.D., M.P.H., director of Johns Hopkins' Center on Aging and Health and lead author of the report. "Now that we have our hallmarks, we can determine the causes and consequences of frailty and ways to prevent or treat it."

Those frail at the start of the study were six times more likely to die than those who weren't over a three-year period, and more than three times more likely to die over a seven-year period. After seven years, 43 percent of those who were frail had died, compared to 23 percent of those who were intermediate and 12 percent of those who were robust.

Because 20 percent of the population is now over the age of 65, compared with only 4 percent a century ago, and because it affects 5 to 20 percent of this age group, frailty "is a concern not just for geriatricians, but for all physicians who see older adults," Fried says. "These patients are the most vulnerable, most at risk for disability or death, the highest users of medical care and at the highest risk of being admitted to nursing homes."

Researchers studied 5,317 people ages 65 to 101 who lived on their own. Fifty-eight percent were female and 15 percent African American, with a broad range of socioeconomic, functional and health status. The study subjects were participating in the Cardiovascular Health Study, a prospective, observational study of men and women at least 65 years old in four areas of the country: Sacramento County, Calif.; Washington County, Md.; Forsyth County, N.C.; and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pa.

The clinicians did physical exams and lifestyle evaluations, including difficulty in performing daily tasks. They concluded that a diagnosis of frailty requires at least three of the following symptoms: Overall, 7 percent of the group had at least three criteria for frailty, while 46 percent had none. Six percent of the initial group and 12 percent of the African American group were frail. Prevalence of frailty increased with each five-year age group.

Those who were frail were older (ages 75 to 84), more likely to be female (69 percent) and African American (28 percent), and also had higher rates of disability and co-existing chronic diseases, including arthritis, high blood pressure and diabetes.

In addition, those who were intermediate at the start of the study were twice as likely to become frail over three years relative to those with no frailty characteristics.
The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Other institutions involved in the study were the University of Washington, Seattle; the University of Pittsburgh; the University of California at Davis, Sacramento; St. Francis Hospital, Roslyn, N.Y.; the University of California at Los Angeles; the University of Vermont, Burlington; the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md.; and Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Related Web sites:

Johns Hopkins' Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

National Institute on Aging

Media contact: Karen Blum(410)955-1534

Johns Hopkins Medicine

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