USF researchers predict disabilities

With the help of several scientific models, USF researchers conducted a study and found a better way to predict the onset of disabilities in older adults.

This ability may help older adults live longer, healthier, more productive lives as they age, said Merril Silverstein, co-author of the study and a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Southern California.

“The ultimate goal is to inform practitioners and policymakers about what they can do to encourage the correct behaviors in old age to promote healthy aging and increased survival with health,” Silverstein said. “We don’t want to have increased years if those years are going to be spent with poor quality of life. We want to increase years of people living healthy active lives.”

The study is called AHEAD, Asset and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old, and is an ongoing study that was originally started at the University of Michigan. The study is funded by the National Institute on Aging.

In the study, researchers found that having certain diseases, or the onsets to those diseases, in addition to lifestyle activity impairments, can help to predict when older adults will develop particular disabilities, said Sandra Reynolds, co-author of the study and an associate professor in the School of Aging Studies at USF. The diseases that researchers were concerned with in the study were cancer, hypertension, diabetes, lung diseases, heart conditions, psychiatric problems, arthritis and strokes.

The particular disabilities that researchers are concerned with are Activities of Daily Living and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living . The specific ADLs that were looked at were bathing, feeding, getting in and out of bed, going to the bathroom, walking across a room and getting dressed. The specific IADLs that were observed were preparing a meal, shopping for groceries, taking medications, managing money and using a telephone. The lifestyle activity impairments that are thought to help predict the onset of disabilities in older adults are sensory impairment, depression, weight change, smoking and cognition.

“We are looking at the onset of these ADL difficulties, not being able to do them without help and looking to see whether having a disease in that period of time is predictive of having the onset of the disability,” Reynolds said.

At the beginning of the study, patients were asked whether they had certain diseases or were engaging in any lifestyle activity impairments, Reynolds said. At periodic intervals during the study, patients were interviewed again to determine if they had contracted any diseases or had engaged in lifestyle impairment activities.

“The study is looking at one wave to see if they don’t have it (diseases) and then, in the next wave, they might have it, so we assume they have had an onset in that period of time,” Reynolds said.

The questionnaires in the study also asked whether participants had difficulty in any ADLs and IALDs.

“It’s the add-up telling us if they have difficulties with certain things,” Reynolds said.

In addition, participants were asked if they had used any home improvement techniques, such as grab bars in the shower, that may delay the onset of a disability.

Overall, researchers found that the onsets of diseases and lifestyle activity impairments are predictors of later onsets of disabilities in older adults, Reynolds said. They also found out that impairments in IADLs could predict the onset of disabilities that occur in ADLs. In addition, the results showed females are more likely to develop disabilities later in life, specifically in terms of ADLs.

“What we think is happening is that men are dying off from the killer diseases and women are living longer to become disabled. But females were less likely to develop IADLs because of experience,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said she hopes the results of this study will help develop long-term care strategies for older adults that would properly target both home- and community-based services, such as Meals on Wheels and Congregate Wheels. Overall, these programs should help older adults maintain their appropriate weight, offer information about nutrition, offer information about and access to exercising programs and more use of preventative tests, said Reynolds.