How tired you are after housework or a walk may predict an earlier death

A reduction in 'fatigability' may 'stem the downward spiral of impaired physical function,' say researchers.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read January 26, 2022
Man collapsed on treadmill

Research indicates that getting more physical activity can reduce a person’s fatigability. GETTY

How tired a person thinks they will feel after performing certain activities says a lot about how much time they have left, according to a new study.

The research, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, found that older adults who recorded the highest scores when asked how fatigued certain activities would make them were more than twice as likely to die in the next 2.7 years compared to those who registered lower scores. The study relied on the Pittsburgh Fatigability Scale — a 10-item questionnaire designed by the study’s lead author, Nancy Glynn — to determine the physical and mental toll a range of activities would take on older adults.

“This is the time of year when people make — and break — New Year’s resolutions to get more physical activity,” said Glynn, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. “I hope our findings provide some encouragement to stick with exercise goals. Previous research indicates that getting more physical activity can reduce a person’s fatigability.

“Our study is the first to link more severe physical fatigability to an earlier death. Conversely, lower scores indicate greater energy and more longevity.”

Glynn administered the scale to just under 3,000 patients, aged 60 or older, who were enrolled in the Long Life Family Study — an international project that follows family members across two generations. Subjects were asked to rate how tired a series of activities — from light housework to a 30-minute walk — would make them on a scale of 0 to 5. Researchers decided to end the study’s follow-up period just prior to the COVID pandemic to ensure the virus did not impact its mortality findings.

After accounting for other variables that may lead to an early death, including depression, age, gender or pre-existing illness, the team found that people who scored 25 points or higher on the scale were 2.3 times more likely to die in the next 2.7 years than those who scored less than 25 points.

“There has been research showing that people who increase their physical activity can decrease their fatigability score,” Glynn said. “And one of the best ways to increase physical activity — which simply means moving more — is by setting manageable goals and starting a routine, like a regular walk or scheduled exercise.”

Glynn said she hopes the findings from this study lead to wider use of the tool she and her colleagues created to measure fatigue back in 2014.

“While the Pittsburgh Fatigability Scale has been widely adopted in research as a reliable, sensitive way to measure fatigability, it is under-utilized in hospital settings and clinical trials,” Glynn said.

“My ultimate goal is to develop a physical activity intervention targeting a reduction in fatigability as a means to stem the downward spiral of impaired physical function common with the aging process.  By reducing fatigability, one can change how they feel, potentially motivating them to do more.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca

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