Understanding the etiology underlying frailty: Making frail older adults less frail 

Why do older adults grow frail? 

Because they grow old–but not only this. We all know, or we recognize as researchers, that some octogenarians thrive, while others ten years younger are highly vulnerable. 

Our field of gerontology often asks a different question: How should an older adult’s frailty influence the care we provide them? That’s important. So also, though, is to treat the frailty itself: truly treat, and not just ameliorate symptoms. This is what any one of us would wish if we were frail—to not be as frail anymore. 

Our group here at Frailty Science has been pursuing the goal of forestalling and turning back frailty for more than two decades. Which brings us back to the question where we began—why do older adults grow frail? If we knew the answer, maybe we could reverse the process: at least, take it a few steps back. The evidence base we have accrued points to a potential answer: People become physically frail because their physiology reaches a pattern and threshold of dysregulation making it impossible to sustain, even qualitatively, its intended functioning. 

You can imagine how thrilled and privileged we felt recently, then, when Nature Aging published a compendium of our work in its inaugural issue. In brief, we hypothesize that frailty results from critical dysregulation in multiple physiological systems—not any systems, but a few specific systems that are central to stress response, musculoskeletal integrity, and energy metabolism. Dynamical systems theory may then provide a useful lens to recognize impending critical transitioning out of qualitatively “normal” physiological functioning, and emergence into a radically different, frail state of functioning. The component systems—stress response and etc.—would be “modules” in the overarching dynamical system, and then their integrity, protocols for interacting with each other, preservation of redundancies against failures, and the like are parameters governing the overarching functioning. Elegant mathematics are available to characterize these parameters: We believe the parameters’ estimation in the context of stressor perturbation hold promise both as biomarkers of frailty and levers to identify intervention points that could indeed turn back frailty—at least, frailty below a severity threshold where intervention remains possible.  

If you’re interested, we hope you’ll check out this work further: 

Nature Aging Article  

Johns Hopkins Press Release