Hidden Health Risks of Isolation for Older Adults

With the rapid rise of Covid-19 infected cases and hospital admissions, most countries have reintroduced movement restriction and social distancing rules. Once again, older adults, especially the 70+,  are advised to shelter at home to reduce  exposure to the life- threatening disease. And visits to long term care homes will be restricted.

While these protective measures are necessary, we must not overlook the hidden health risks that come with it. Social and physical isolation inadvertently affect the mental and physical health of the elderly.

To many older people, the abrupt change to their lifestyle, physical activity and social engagement is devastating, resulting in anxiety, depression and declining cognitive function. And lack of physical activity and exercise causes weight gain, weakening muscles, frailty, poor balance and risk of fall.

The most vulnerable are those who live alone, and those with limited financial resources, multiple health problems, mental problems, and memory problems.

Ory, M., Smith, M. (2020). Social isolation: The COVID-19 pandemic’s hidden health risk for older adults, and how to manage it. The Conversation.

What are the consequences of physical inactivity?

Researchers from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil reported the dangers of physical inactivity for older adults during COVID-19 shutdown. Their paper was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in May, 2020.

Literature review of past research shows that it takes just 5 to 10 days of immobility for the muscles to start shrinking and wasting away. This can accelerate the progression of age-related sarcopenia and can lead to chronic diseases. Previous Studies also show that older adults who walk less than 1,500 steps a day can lose 4 percent of their leg muscle tissue in just  two weeks. The muscle wasting is also associated with raised blood sugar and inflammation.

Strategies to combat Covid-19 should include interventions to reduce the potential unhealthy effects of isolation among the elderly. The suggestions include: 

  • Resistance exercises specially designed for older adults to do at home;
  • Health education to discourage a sedentary lifestyle and a prolonged period of inactivity. 

Roschel, H., Artioli, G., Gualano, B. (2020). Risk of Increased Physical Inactivity During COVID‐19 Outbreak in Older People: A Call for Actions. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

What can we do to reduce isolation problems?

Older adults, their families, and their caregivers must be reminded of the necessity and importance of staying active. We have to strengthen our immune systems and maintain fitness by daily exercise, good nutrition and good quality sleep. To reduce fall risk, do exercises that can improve your strength, balance and flexibility.

Keep active, keep moving. Instead of slumbering in front of the television the whole day, introduce some light activities in your daily routines.  For example: gardening, simple DIY jobs, joining virtual dance/exercise classes etc. Any activity that gets you up and moving around is good for you. 

There are many physical exercise and activity programs on the internet. Here are a few specially designed for the 65+.

The National Council On Aging (NCOA) has many tips and resources (text, infographic and video) to help you stay active and healthy during this difficult time. 

Tripken, J., Hergott, C. (2020). Encouraging older adults to stay active and safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Safe Exercise at Home website is a collaboration of Australian physiotherapists with clinical and academic expertise in exercise and other forms of physical activity for older people and people with mobility limitations. The site provides information on ways to stay active during COVID-19. There are simple functional exercises which are safe for older people to practice at home.

Safe Exercise at Home, Australian Physiotherapy Association

The NHS of the United Kingdom also has a Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults. The website is a rich resource of exercise and fitness information.

Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults, NHS, UK.

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