A study recently published by The BMJ has found that worsening physical function from the age of 65 is linked to an increased risk of death, with signs of decline emerging up to 10 years earlier.

The findings suggest that measuring signs of increasing decline, such as difficulty getting up from a chair, could offer an insight into mortality risk. Early detection of these changes could therefore be used to provide opportunities for prevention and targeted interventions.

Poor motor function was associated with an increased mortality risk

The researchers examined signs of decline by measuring various motor functions over a 10-year period from around the age of 65. These measures included grip strength, walking speed and chair rise time. They also considered self-reported measures and difficulties during day-to-day activities such as getting dressed, using the toilet and food shopping.

The findings are based on over 6,000 participants who were recruited aged 35-55 years old in 1985-1988. The participants were then re-assessed between 2007 and 2016 where they underwent various motor function assessments on up to three occasions. Deaths from any cause were then recorded until October 2019.

After taking account of other potentially influential factors, the researchers found that poorer motor function was associated with an increased mortality risk of 22% for walking speed, 15% for grip strength and 14% for timed chair rises, while difficulties with activities of daily living were associated with a 30% increased risk. These associations became progressively stronger with later life assessments.

The research adds to the “sparse literature on terminal decline in motor function”

Further analysis showed different patterns of change between participants who died compared to those who survived. For example, participants who died had poorer chair rise times than survivors up to 10 years before death, poorer self-reported functioning up to seven years before death, and more difficulties with activities of daily living up to four years before death. These differences increased steadily in the period leading to death.

Although the study is observational and cannot establish a cause, the authors say the research “adds to the sparse literature on terminal decline in motor function and, to our knowledge, is the first to examine terminal and age-related long-term trajectories of multiple measures of motor function.”

As a result of the findings, the authors are calling for the implementation of strategies to reduce accelerated decline before old age is reached. They say they will continue to monitor the study’s participants as they age which will help to inform the development of interventions to promote healthy ageing.