Pearl of the Month

Geriatric patients: My three rules for them


have been in practice for 31 years, so many of my patients are now in their 80s and 90s. Practices age with us, and I have been seeing many of these patients for 25-30 years. I have three rules I try to encourage my elderly patients follow, and I wanted to share them with you.

Absolutely, positively make sure you move!

Dr. Douglas S. Paauw, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Douglas S. Paauw

Our older patients often have many reasons not to move, including pain from arthritis, deconditioning, muscle weakness, fatigue, and depression. “Keeping moving” is probably the most important thing a patient can do for their health.

Holme and Anderssen studied a large cohort of men for cardiovascular risk in 1972 and again in 2000. The surviving men were followed over an additional 12 years.1 They found that 30 minutes of physical activity 6 days a week was associated with a 40% reduction in mortality. Sedentary men had a reduced life expectancy of about 5 years, compared with men who were moderately to vigorously physically active.

Stewart etal. studied the benefit of physical activity in people with stable coronary disease.2 They concluded that, in patients with stable coronary heart disease, more physical activity was associated with lower mortality, and the largest benefit occurred in the sedentary patient groups and the highest cardiac risk groups.

Saint-Maurice et al. studied the effects of total daily step count and step intensity on mortality risk.3 They found that the risk of all-cause mortality decreases as the total number of daily steps increases, but that the speed of those steps did not make a difference. This is very encouraging data for our elderly patients. Moving is the secret, even if it may not be moving at a fast pace!

Never, ever get on a ladder!

This one should be part of every geriatric’s assessment and every Medicare wellness exam. I first experienced the horror of what can happen when elderly people climb when a 96-year-old healthy patient of mine fell off his roof and died. I never thought to tell him climbing on the roof was an awful idea.

Akland et al. looked at the epidemiology and outcomes of ladder-related falls that required ICU admission.4 Hospital mortality was 26%, and almost all of the mortalities occurred in older males in domestic falls, who died as a result of traumatic brain injury. Fewer than half of the survivors were living independently 1 year after the fall.

Valmuur et al. studied ladder related falls in Australia.5 They found that rates of ladder related falls requiring hospitalization rose from about 20/100,000 for men ages 15-29 years to 78/100,000 for men aged over 60 years. Of those who died from fall-related injury, 82% were over the age of 60, with more than 70% dying from head injuries.

Schaffarczyk et al. looked at the impact of nonoccupational falls from ladders in men aged over 50 years.6 The mean age of the patients in the study was 64 years (range, 50-85), with 27% suffering severe trauma. There was a striking impact on long-term function occurring in over half the study patients. The authors did interviews with patients in follow-up long after the falls and found that most never thought of themselves at risk for a fall, and after the experience of a bad fall, would never consider going on a ladder again. I think it is important for health care professionals to discuss the dangers of ladder use with our older patients, pointing out the higher risk of falling and the potential for the fall to be a life-changing or life-ending event.


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