Ageing is a natural part of life, and as we grow older, we may face various physical challenges that can impact our mobility and overall quality of life. Physiotherapy plays a vital role in the wellbeing of those in their mature part of the ageing spectrum by addressing these challenges and promoting healthy habits. In this blog, we will explore the significance of physiotherapy in the context of geriatric care, focusing on how it enhances function and engagement in the community of older adults.
The Ageing Population
The global population is ageing at an unprecedented rate. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of people aged 60 and above is expected to double by 2050. This demographic shift presents new challenges for healthcare systems and professionals. Seniors often experience a decline in physical function, which can lead to reduced independence and lower quality of life. Physiotherapy is an essential component of geriatric care, helping older adults maintain or regain their physical activity, mobility, manage chronic conditions, and lead more fulfilling lives.
Healthspan vs Lifespan
Healthspan refers to the length of time that a person lives free from serious disease, rather than simply living as long as possible, as Lifespan tends to focus on. Being able to enjoy good health for longer as we age is intimately connected to our ability to move with ease, enhancing our quality of life. It is important to remember that being “healthy” means different things to different people. Below are a few ways that Physiotherapy can contribute to improving healthy “healthspan” habits.
General Exercise and Health Benefits
In the words of Dr. Peter Attia, “exercise might be the most potent ‘drug’ we have for extending the quality and perhaps quantity of our years of life”. One of the most important things people can do to improve their health is regular physical activity. Frequent exercise is associated with a lower risk of frailty and the debilitating falls and injuries that may result. As we age, our exercise may also look different; it may be picking up and carrying the grandchildren, or regular garden maintenance, or walking with friends. The science shows us that regular physical activities are associated with the reduction in risk of many chronic conditions, including metabolic dysregulation, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegeneration.
Rehabilitation: Physiotherapy is commonly used in rehabilitation after surgeries, injuries, or illnesses. Seniors recovering from joint replacements, fractures, or strokes can benefit from specialized physiotherapy programs. These programs focus on improving strength, flexibility, and balance, enabling patients to regain their independence. These can be undertaken in 1:1 settings or in small group classes, both of which help with accountability and progress. You can ask us about our exercise classes for general fitness, mobility or for arthritis or diabetes care.
Fall Prevention: Falls are a significant concern for older adults, as they can lead to serious injuries and a loss of confidence in one’s mobility. Physiotherapists can assess an individual’s risk of falling and develop exercise programs to improve balance and coordination, reducing the chances of falls. Bone health also plays a vital role in reducing the severity of a potential fall. Bond density of the hip joint and lumbar spine can be assessed through a DEXA scan (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry scan). This is a special type of x-ray that measures bone mineral density (BMD) and provides information about bone strength or fragility and the risk of fractures or broken bones. A higher density generally indicates a lower risk of fracture and land-based resistance exercise is an effective way to improve this.
Arthritis Management: Arthritis is a common condition among seniors, causing joint pain and stiffness. Physiotherapy techniques like joint mobilization, manual therapy, and exercises can help reduce pain, improve joint function, and enhance mobility. Sometimes, the presence of pain associated with inflammatory arthritides can be a barrier to function and exercise, so working with a physio to understand unique situations and what can be done safely is very empowering for individuals.
Chronic Pain Management: Many older adults experience chronic pain, often related to conditions like osteoarthritis, persistent lower back pain, diabetic neuropathy or post-chemotherapy treatment. Nociplastic system changes can occur as a generalised increased sensitivity in the neuroimmune system due to more systemic conditions or widespread bodily protection responses when we become mobile or tolerant to movement. Linking back to general exercise benefits, when we maintain more muscle mass and reduce adipose (fatty tissue) the inflammatory load on the system reduces; which can also have an impact on a person’s experience of pain. Physiotherapists can help with education and understanding around “why we hurt,” in collaboration with various modalities, such as therapeutic exercises, soft tissue therapy, and electrical muscle stimulation to alleviate pain and improve mobility.
Improving Quality of Life
Enhanced Functional Independence: One of the primary goals of physiotherapy in geriatric care is to improve functional independence. This means enabling older adults to perform daily activities with ease, such as getting in and out of bed, dressing, bathing, and cooking. Maintaining these capabilities enhances an individual’s quality of life and meaningfulness by allowing them to live more independently. Mature clients may also have other family responsibilities like supporting a partner or being a part of child-care, all of which can be better maintained when functional independence remains.
Management of Chronic Conditions: Metabolic dysregulation has many presentations, including type 2 diabetes, systemic insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, hypertension, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Many older adults live with complex chronic health conditions and Physiotherapy can complement the medical management of these conditions. Promoting physical activity, helping manage weight, reducing inflammation, and improving cardiovascular health can all contribute to improving healthspan and lead to an overall better quality of life and a reduced risk of complications when more interventions may be required.
Cognitive Benefits: Engaging in physiotherapy exercises and activities can also have cognitive benefits. Physical activity has been shown to improve brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Learning “novel” movements not only help with reducing chronic pain symptoms by being seemingly “unrelated to previously painful movements,” but also contribute to “neuroplasticity” or the ability for the brain to change or rewire itself.
Social Interaction: Physiotherapy sessions provide an opportunity for social interaction, which is especially important for seniors who may be at risk of isolation. Building relationships with healthcare professionals and fellow patients can positively impact mental well-being. At RHP we offer physio-supervised exercise classes that not only help to improve and fulfil the functional elements of staying active, but also facilitate peer support and camaraderie while doing so.
Physiotherapy plays a vital role in geriatric care by contributing to the healthspan of ageing individuals, enhancing mobility and independence. By addressing issues related to mobility, pain, and functional independence, physiotherapists contribute to the overall well-being of seniors. As the world’s population continues to age, the importance of physiotherapy in the older community is more significant than ever. With the right interventions and a focus on holistic care, seniors can enjoy a healthier and more fulfilling life as they age.
By Chanthalah Webster Tight