The Commissioner, one of my septuagenarian golf buddies, likes to remind me of the limitations that await me, the youngest of our foursome: “You’re not going to be able to do what you’re doing now in 10 years,” he warns. I often take this to mean that my slice may someday disappear, but he’s actually referring to what he believes to be the inexorable slide from functional to frail.
He’s not alone in this belief. Conventional wisdom has long asserted that frailty is a non-negotiable product of aging. And, to be sure, the years do take a toll on the body. It’s been six years since I dared to return to the basketball court; my fast-twitch muscles don’t twitch like they used to. And just last week, my right shoulder suddenly began lobbying for my attention with a dull, but persistent ache, accompanied by an annoying lack of mobility.
I couldn’t point to a particular incident I could blame for this affliction; it simply appeared out of nowhere to perhaps remind me that my aging body is, well, aging. Maybe The Commissioner is right: Despite my daily efforts to sustain some semblance of physical fitness, at some point my body may just decide it’s had enough. The shoulders freeze, the knees stiffen, the spine slumps, and I find myself wondering on some future morning why I’m having so much trouble pulling on a pair of jeans.
Old age invites an abundance of curses, both mental and physical, but here in Geezerville the prospect of frailty seems to introduce itself whenever we’re struck by some mysterious twinge. It’s easy to leap to conclusions, to assume the worst.
But a flurry of research in recent years suggests that frailty is neither preordained nor intractable. And fending it off may have as much to do with what you eat as how much you lift.
For years, I’ve relied on a strength-training regimen as my best defense against sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass that typically leads to frailty, so I was intrigued by the results of a study released last summer linking frailty with lower levels of certain vitamins and antioxidants. The report, compiled by Aisling O’Halloran, PhD, and her team at Trinity College Dublin, found that frail study subjects were deficient in lutein, zeaxanthin, and vitamin D.
The results suggest that a simple blood test could help physicians diagnose “pre-frailty” in elderly patients and prescribe dietary changes to fend off the condition. “We have presented evidence in the largest study to date that lower levels of specific vitamins and antioxidants — and having low levels of more than one micronutrient — is consistently and progressively associated with the most commonly used methods for measuring frailty,” O’Halloran said in a statement. “Our data suggest that low micronutrient status may act as an easily modified marker and intervention target for frailty among adults aged 50 years and over.”
I’m not smart enough to grasp the association between frailty and a deficiency in micronutrients best known for their ability to enhance our vision (lutein and zeaxanthin), but O’Halloran’s focus on vitamin D reinforces volumes of earlier research lauding its bone-strengthening benefits. And though the jury seems to be out on the role of protein (too much can be dangerous), a team of Spanish researchers last year argued for its ability to rebuild muscle mass while also lauding the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
All this doesn’t seem to negate the importance of maintaining muscle mass by lifting heavy objects, which is my preferred approach (although I’m also a big fan of protein). That becomes problematic, of course, when certain body parts refuse to cooperate. So, I can see how a freak injury could derail an anti-frailty campaign. Life’s a crapshoot. Sometimes, stuff just happens.
I came home from the office last Thursday barely able to lift my right arm and bracing myself for another poor night’s sleep. Then, right after dinner, I began to feel a bit woozy. Before I knew what hit me, I found myself collapsing on the couch with a fever and chills — an aggressive viral bug apparently designed to divert my attention from my bum shoulder.
My Lovely Wife located some homeopathic belladonna and, almost as an afterthought, slathered some arnica gel on my shoulder, and sent me to bed. Twelve hours later, I woke up surprisingly free of virus symptoms and noticed that the dull ache in my shoulder had dissipated. As I write this two days later, the pain has vanished completely and my full range of motion has returned. When I mentioned this to a colleague of mine, he noted that I’d been “blessed by the Zen health gods.”
That’s as good an explanation as any other, I suppose. Sometimes, stuff just happens.