Diet, Exercise Aid Elderly

JULY 11, 1994 VOLUME 2, NUMBER 2

Two recent studies suggest ways to combat frailty and immobility in elderly patients. Both were reported in the June 23 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, and both promise relatively simple ways to gain substantial health advantages.

Bicarb for Bones

In the first study, 18 post-menopausal women were given daily supplements of potassium bicarbonate for 18 days. After that period, the bicarb supplements were stopped and the women monitored for an additional 12 days.

Researcher Anthony Sebastian, of the University of California in San Francisco, reasoned that bone calcium might be used by the body to neutralize excess acids formed during digestion. Since little bone formation takes place after menopause, he then deduced that excess digestive acids might actually imperil bone calcium reserves, and that the bicarbonate might help slow or reverse that calcium loss.

Study results showed that, though women continued to lose calcium during the potassium bicarbonate trials, the loss was significantly slower than after the supplements were stopped. Loss of bone itself was halted or even reversed during the bicarbonate supplement period.

The reduction in calcium loss was dramatic despite the fact that no calcium was supplied in the supplements. Apparently, Sebastian’s theory was correct.

Pumping Iron

The second study sought to determine whether weight training, vitamin supplements or a combination of both might assist elderly patients to overcome physical frailty. 100 patients (with a mean age of 87) were randomly assigned to one of four groups. Group one underwent intensive resistance training for thigh and hip muscles three times each week. Groups two and three received vitamin-fortified, 360 calorie drinks daily; group three also went through the weight-training regimen. Group four participants received neither therapy.

The results of the study clearly showed that weight training benefits the frail elderly. In fact, four of the weight-training participants exchanged their walkers for canes by the end of the study.

Overall, exercise more than doubled the muscle of study subjects. Among the non-exercising participants, muscle mass decreased 3.9% during the study. Gait velocity and stair-climbing power both showed dramatic improvement among the exercising participants, as well. Interestingly, the gains were not dependent on age, sex, medical condition or initial frailty of the participants.

This recent study, conducted by Maria A. Fiatarone of the U.S. Human Nutrition Center on Aging in Boston, confirms the results of a 1990 study involving weight training. That earlier study was notable for another finding; after the researchers concluded their involvement, virtually none of the elderly participants continued the exercise regimen. The failure to continue the program was most ironic, but still prevalent, among those who had realized substantial gains in mobility during the study.

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