Key Signs of Functional Decline Among the Elderly

As people age, they experience what is known as functional decline. Functional decline is defined as:

Functional decline is a new loss of independence in self-care capabilities and is typically associated with deterioration in mobility and in the performance of activities of daily living.

Functional decline can be seen to varying degrees as people age. Some people experience greater degrees of functional decline than do others.

Research has investigated functional decline in older adults. According to these studies, functional decline can be traced to these factors:

  • Physical changes
  • Perceptual changes
  • Cognitive changes
  • Psychological changes

Physical Changes

There are a variety of physical changes that take place as a person ages. These physical changes can impact an individual’s ability to undertake activities of daily living. (Activities of daily living are discussed in greater detail later in this article.) Generally, activities of daily living are those tasks we all undertake on a daily basis as a normal course of living. 

Some of the more significant physical changes that can impact a person’s ability to engage in activities of daily living include:

  • Weakening muscles
  • Eyesight problems
  • Deteriorating bone density
  • Decreased lung capacity

We consider for a moment each of these primary physical changes that can impact an older person’s ability to tend to activities of daily living. Bear in mind that the extent to which these physical changes occur does vary from one individual to another. One person might experience a significant decline as to one or another or these physical changes. Another individual might age with what relatively is a notable less significant change in one or another of these physical areas.

Weakening Muscles

Studies demonstrate that the average human body decreases in muscle strength by almost 50 percent by the time a person reaches the age of 40. This is a significant change. 

Recognizing this possibility, there are some steps you can take to lessen the rate of age-related muscle weakening. The Mayo Clinic recommends certain strategies to lessen muscle weakening that include:

  • Eating more protein. Proteins are the building blocks of muscle. They contain amino acids that help repair, maintain, and build muscle mass. Some good sources of protein include soy, Greek yogurt, lean meat, and chicken breast.
  • Exercising more often. You don’t have to follow a complete bodybuilding program. Some simple aerobic and anaerobic exercises would be more than enough to keep your body in tip-top shape. The key to positive physical changes and results isn’t intensity, but rather, consistency.
  • Taking multivitamins. Meal preparation is both time-consuming and expensive. As a result, most people fail to get the nutrients their muscles need to stay strong. To remedy this, try taking multivitamins. That way, you don’t have to rely solely on food for your daily vitamins and minerals.

Eyesight Problems

A variety of issues and conditions can negatively impact a person’s eyesight as he or she grows older. Common eye problems include:

  • Dry eyes
  • Tearing
  • Glaucoma
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Retinal Disorders
  • Floaters
  • Presbyopia
  • Cataracts
  • Temporal Arteritis

The John Hopkins University School of Medicine recommends some strategies to aid in maintaining eye health:

  • Eat nutritious foods. Having a well-balanced diet can contribute to the health of your eyes. It can also help you maintain a healthy body weight, which is essential for your vision.
  • Wear protective sunglasses. Sunglasses that block the UV lights can make a big difference in delaying the aging process of your eyes. 
  • Control blood sugar levels. Diabetes in severe cases can cause blindness, and high blood pressure can trigger this. It’s essential to take care of your overall health. 

Deteriorating Bone Density

Once a person reaches the age of 50, bone density can begin to increase. Bone density loss is more pronounced among women, but it happens to men as well. 

There are some basic steps you can take to slow down bone density loss:

  • Increase calcium intake
  • Increase vitamin D intake
  • Stay physically active
  • Stop smoking

Decreased Lung Capacity

The American Lung Association reports:

As you get older, your lungs can lose its elasticity. Your muscles that help you breathe tend to get weaker, causing you to inhale less oxygen.

You can protect lung health by engaging in these strategies:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid polluted air (outside and inside your home)
  • Maintain a healthy body weight

Perceptual Changes

Another sign of functional decline among the elderly is found in perceptual changes. These are:

  • Vision deficits
  • Hearing loss
  • Changes in taste and smell sensitivity
  • Decreased sensitivity to touch

Vision Deficits

Vision deficits can make it more difficult to undertake activities of daily living. As people age, they can experience a range of different types of vision related issues and eye diseases. Farsightedness is the most common vision deficit aging people experience. That means they can no longer see things up close as readily as they had in the past.

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is another perceptual problem experienced by many individuals as they grow older. Hearing loss can make it impossible to use the phone. Indeed, it can become difficult to carry on conversations in person, watch television, or even hear warning or emergency alarms. 

Losses in Taste and Smell

As people age, their sense of taste and smell can reduce. This means that a person might not take as much enjoyment in eating. It also means that individual cannot readily tell if a food item has gone bad. 

Decreased Sensitivity to Touch

Decreased sensitivity to touch is another perceptual change that can occur as a person ages. This can present dangers in a number of ways. An individual may not be able to readily tell the temperature of water and may end up scalded. A person might not know he or she experienced a cut or scrap. These wounds might go unattended and become infected.

Cognitive Changes

A majority of people will age without major cognitive issues like dementia. On the other hand, aging does result in a pair of cognitive changes for most people. 

First, as a person ages, he or she is not able to process information as quickly as when that individual was younger.

Second, as an individual grows older, he or she will have less of an ability to carry out more than one task at a time.

Psychological Changes

As an individual ages, he or she may experience certain psychological changes. Many experts believe the most common of these is known as disinhibition. This represents an exaggeration of preexisting personality traits.

For example, a person who once had a reasonable take-charge attitude may become argumentative. At the other end of the spectrum, an individual who relied on others for guidance may become unreasonably clingy. 

What Are Activities of Daily Living?

As mentioned previously, these various signs of functional decline all involve matters that can impact the ability of an older person to effectively undertake activities of daily living. Earlier in this article, we noted we would return to a brief discussion of activities of daily living.

Activities of daily living are those a person must undertake as a matter of routine on a day-to-day basis. Activities of daily living include:

  • Basic communication skills – such as using a regular phone, mobile phone, email, or the internet
  • Transportation – either by driving oneself, arranging rides, or the ability to use public transportation
  • Meal preparation – meal planning, cooking, clean up, storage, and the ability to safely use kitchen equipment and utensils
  • Shopping – the ability to make appropriate food and clothing purchase decisions
  • Housework – doing laundry, washing dishes, dusting, vacuuming, and maintaining a clean place of residence
  • Managing medications – taking the correct amount of medication at the correct time. Managing re-fills
  • Managing personal finances – operating within a budget, writing checks, paying bills, and avoiding scams
  • Bathing, grooming, and dressing