improve orthopedic health for seniors

Orthopedic health is a central component of overall physical health and well-being for seniors. The field of orthopedics includes anything that has to do with the bones, muscles, joints, and connective tissues of the human body.

Beyond contributing to overall physical health, orthopedic health has a particular impact on quality of life for older adults. Something as simple and harmless as a slip on the ice and a resulting broken hip can come with significant pain and a tripled risk of death within the first year, as well as a significant adverse impact on mobility, socialization, and overall happiness.

For these reasons and more, it is vital that seniors keep their bones, muscles, and joints as healthy as possible. Here are the top 12 ways older adults can ensure they are preventing orthopedic injury and keeping their bodies in tip-top shape.

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Perhaps the single greatest thing that seniors can do to improve their overall orthopedic health is to build and maintain physical strength. Muscular weakness has been found to independently predict risk of death in seniors over 65 years of age.

Because we lose muscle mass as we age at a rate of 5 to 10 percent per year after age 30, building muscle mass and especially strength in the body's core will help keep seniors healthy, mobile, and active with age.

However, one does not need to lift heavy weights to build and maintain muscle. Activities such as light weightlifting, swimming, or even moving things around in the garden can help build and maintain muscle mass and strength.

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Muscle strength is an essential component of orthopedic and overall health. However, exercise has other benefits beyond muscle-building that are significant to orthopedic health, namely improved mobility.

For seniors who want to remain as mobile as possible well into old age, engaging in a regular walking regimen can prolong mobility for years. This could include a routine as simple as walking to the store to buy a newspaper every day. It does not need to be unnecessarily complicated or difficult.

Many seniors who have joint pain may benefit from non-weight-bearing exercises, such as swimming or aquatic fitness classes.

No matter what type of exercise you choose to do, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise routine.

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The aspects of agility and flexibility are often ignored in favor of strength and cardiovascular fitness, yet they too are central to maintaining and improving orthopedic health. Maintaining flexibility can help improve functional mobility and well-being according to at least one major review of the literature.

Flexibility may also relieve some of the joint and muscle pain that some older adults experience.

senior female fitness ball lifting dumbbells

Two of the best activities for increased flexibility that are senior-friendly and have low barriers to entry are yoga and simple stretching. Many community organizations and programs offer senior yoga classes on a drop-in basis, while a physical therapist can help design an effective program of stretches for the entire body that you can do from the comfort and privacy of your own home.

Many seniors may look at experienced yogis and go, Wow, I could never do that!  But yoga is for all ages and skill levels. Some restorative yoga and hatha yoga classes are especially gentle on aging joints, and even those with significant physical limitations can reap the positive health benefits of chair yoga.

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Of all the health professionals that may be at your disposal, a physical therapist is perhaps the best suited to help you maintain and improve physical mobility, strength, and overall orthopedic well-being.

senior woman therapist exercise ball

A physical therapist can help develop an exercise and stretching plan that can help you meet your goals for mobility, strength, and overall quality of life. They are also an essential part of recovery from a fall, fracture, stroke, or other injury or illness that has an impact on your orthopedic systems.

They can make sure you are doing exercises with the correct posture and alignment, and you are reducing the risk of injuring yourself by getting proper instruction.

If you have difficulty ambulating (walking), getting in or out of bed, or frequently tire when you are getting from place to place, your physical therapist or physician may recommend the use of a walker, or cane, either temporarily or on an ongoing basis.

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Using a cane, a walker, or another mobility device can be an important way to improve mobility; they contribute to orthopedic health for many people. Beyond preventing falls, these mobility devices can make sure you are not straining a weak or injured limb and provide a helpful rest when you are exerting yourself with walking.

However, these devices can potentially pose a risk of injury due to misalignment, misuse, or inappropriate fit for your body. Having your device fitted by a physical therapist is an important way to avoid these pitfalls.

A physical therapist can train you to use your cane or walker correctly. Though this sounds simple, there are specific ways to use a cane to walk up and down stairs, for instance, for maximum benefit. This is something for which a professional can provide helpful instruction.

senior woman sitting holding cane

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Getting enough vitamins and nutrients in the correct amounts is another way you can make sure you keep your bones strong and healthy, a central component of orthopedic health.

In particular, dietary intake of calcium has been found to be an important component of building and maintaining the strength of your bones, and calcium is also a required substance for the functioning of your muscles.

On a similar note, vitamin D is essential for bone health, as well. It helps the bone tissue absorb and retain the calcium that we consume in our diets, keeping bones strong. This is partly why so many breads, pastas, cereals, and milk products are fortified with vitamin D. Some natural sources of vitamin D include fatty fish as well as okra, kale, spinach, and collard greens.

It is worth tracking your nutrient intake for a week or so and sharing these results with your physician or a registered dietician. Many people can meet all their dietary needs through eating a variety of healthful foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, nuts, seafood, and small amounts of meats and added fats.

However, for others, it may be recommended they take supplements to meet their dietary intake needs.

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If you track your dietary intake over time and your physician or dietician believes you do not have sufficient intake of some essential nutrients, they may recommend you take a supplement to cover the gaps in your diet.

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Vitamin D intake is important to keep bones strong. In many countries, vitamin D is absorbed through exposure to sunlight. However, in the northern hemispheres, many people do not have adequate sun exposure, and taking oral vitamin D supplements may be advised.

If you are taking any nutritional supplements not prescribed or suggested by your doctor, it is important to review these with him or her at your annual check-ups. This is of special importance if you are taking medications, as many dietary supplements have adverse reactions with medications commonly taken by older adults.

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Regardless of your age, it is essential to get regular medical check-ups. This goes double for older adults who may have multiple health conditions and medications.

At your annual check-ups, make sure you mention to your doctor any unusual symptoms you are having or if you have pain in your muscles, bones, or joints. They may want to order additional tests to make sure you do not have an acute medical problem or assess whether you need additional medication for pain from a chronic condition or a surgical procedure, such as a hip replacement.

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Orthopedic surgeries are common among the older adult population.

Hip replacements, knee replacements, and hip fracture repairs are among the most common orthopedic surgeries seniors in the United States undergo each year. These are all major surgeries that require weeks and often months of intense rehabilitative efforts.

Early ambulation is one of the components of surgical recovery that speeds healing and improves surgical outcomes. The sooner you can get up and get moving following surgery, the better your chances are of successful recovery.

For recovery support outside of the hospital, you will likely have a team of home health aids, a physical therapist, and nurses and doctors who can answer any questions you might have and help you troubleshoot your recovery process.

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person after falling in bathroom

Preventing falls is perhaps one of the most important things an older adult can do to ensure they will enjoy an injury-free life and excellent orthopedic health well into old age. Since most falls occur at home, it makes sense that this is where to start in preventing them.

In the bathroom, it is important to install handholds and shower handles to give you something  to grab on to and promote stability. Consider also the use of a slip-resistant bath mat and a shower seat in your tub to further reduce risk of falling in the bathroom.

Many people like to adorn their homes with small decorative rugs that have no slip resistance. As part of your fall-prevention home makeover, you will want to remove these rugs, as they are easy to trip on. It also makes sense to clear all pathways of clutter and make sure all walkways in the home are adequately illuminated.

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Fall prevention is not restricted to the inside of your home. If you live in a wintery locale, clear all walkways, and pathways as soon as the first snow falls and continuously throughout the winter.

Most importantly, treat ice buildup along walkable areas with salt or sand according to local ordinances. Icy stairways and paths are a leading cause of falls for people of all ages.

Beyond this, it may be worth considering the installation of hand railings along outdoor paths if you have one or more in your backyard.

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A less-considered aspect of fall prevention is that of clothing. Our clothes impact our likelihood of falling and injuring ourselves in a few ways.

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Consider the things you wear on your feet and how they impact your risk of falling. Anyone who has ever padded about in socks on slippery wood, tile, or laminate floors is familiar with how dangerous this can be for reason of falling. Swapping your usual socks for non-slip hospital socks may be a better option if you go around the house without shoes or slippers, though bare feet may still be a better option than either if you can tolerate the cold.

Your choice of shoes also has implications for your risk of hip fracture associated with falls. Shoes that do not have a good tread or flat bottoms are a poor choice, while shoes with an adequate grip surface are less likely to result in falling.

Beyond footwear, it is also important to consider the pants or skirts you choose to wear. Opting for styles that are less flowy or baggy or those shorter in length can help avoid a potential tripping hazard. Seniors may also want to consider the use of hip protector garments to further reduce the risk of fall-associated orthopedic trauma if a fall does occur.