For older adults, extreme fatigue after physical activity may predict an early death

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Older adults who feel particularly tired after activities such as light housework or a 30-minute walk may be at an increased risk of dying over the next three years, according to new research. Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh found that older individuals who displayed high levels of exhaustion after these activities were more than twice as likely to die within the next 2.7 years compared to their peers experiencing less exhaustion.

Study authors say this is the first ever piece of research to establish a connection between fatigue and mortality. The team measured fatigue after activities — or “fatigability” — using the novel Pittsburgh Fatigability Scale.

“This is the time of year when people make—and break—New Year’s resolutions to get more physical activity,” says lead study author Nancy W. Glynn, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, in a university release. “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.”

Moving more could mean living longer

More than 2,900 older adults over the age of 60 participated in the study, rating on a scale of one to five how tired they typically felt following various activities. Some of the activities examined in the survey include a leisurely 30-minute walk, light housework, and heavy gardening.

After tracking health and mortality outcomes among participants for roughly three years, and accounting for various additional factors that may increase mortality risk (mental health, age, gender), study authors came to a remarkable conclusion. Specifically, adults who scored 25 points or higher on the Pittsburgh Fatigability Scale were 2.3 times more likely to pass away over the next 2.7 years in comparison to others who scored below 25 points.

“There has been research showing that people who increase their physical activity can decrease their fatigability score,” Dr. Glynn explains. “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.”

“While the Pittsburgh Fatigability Scale has been widely adopted in research as a reliable, sensitive way to measure fatigability, it is underutilized in hospital settings and clinical trials,” the researcher concludes. “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.”

The study is published in the Journal of Gerontology.

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