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VA/UAB study looks at functional decline in older patients after hospitalization

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Motivation and expectation may be factors in helping older adults regain lost functional ability after hospitalization, say researchers with the Birmingham Veterans Administration Medical Center and UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham). In findings published in March in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that patients hospitalized for surgery returned to normal baseline function more quickly and more completely than did patients hospitalized for illness.

Researchers used UAB's Study of Aging Life-Space Assessment, a measure of mobility developed at UAB's Center for Aging, to determine the functional level of seniors before and after hospitalization. On average, patients hospitalized for surgery had a sharp decline in life-space scores immediately after surgery, but returned to or exceeded pre-surgical scores within one year. Patients hospitalized for illness or other medical reasons experienced a lower post-hospitalization decline but did not return to pre-hospitalization scores, experiencing a marked functional decline following hospitalization even after two years.

"The difference may be caused by the presence of increased expectations of recovery and increased motivation in patients presenting for surgery," said Cynthia Brown, M.D., an investigator with the VA's Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center and assistant professor in UAB's Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care. "Patients who undergo surgery expect their medical condition to be fixed and thus to be able to function as well as or better than before. Our analysis indicates that, by and large, that occurs."

The problem, said Brown, are the non-surgical older patients hospitalized for medical issues such as pneumonia or heart disease. The findings show this group on average does not return to baseline, but experiences a permanent decline in their level of mobility.

One hypothesis is that there is no real expectation of full recovery of function by the patient, family or health care providers. Additionally, patients tend to remain immobile in a hospital bed during their stay and may have multiple ailments that complicate treatment. Increased medication also may promote confusion and depression.

"All of these factors can start patients down a slippery slope of functional decline," said Brown. "Our findings suggest that surgical patients return to function, those hospitalized for illness do not. We need to look at our hospital culture to understand why that happens, and to develop interventions to prevent that decline."

Brown said concepts such as Acute Care for Elders (ACE) units, which use patient-centered care, discharge planning, medication review and a specialized environment have shown promise in reducing the decline. Efforts to boost physical and cognitive activity should also be examined.

"Mental status and physical function are targets for intervention during hospitalization," she said. "We need to see about getting these patients up and out of their hospital beds. If we can get these people up faster, perhaps we can reduce hospitalization stays and reduce the risk of falls."

The Life-Space Assessment, developed by Richard Allman, M.D., and Patricia Baker, Ph.D., of UAB's Center for Aging, measures an individual's mobility and degree of independence. Life-space is based upon the distance a person routinely travels to perform activities. The Life-Space Assessment measures how often a person leaves his or her residence, the distance from the residence traveled and how much assistance is needed from other individuals or from assistive devices.

"It is a measure of community mobility and participation in everyday life," Brown said. "Can the individual go to church, go out to dinner, and go to the doctor's office. A life-space decrease may result in a decrease in the distance and frequency of travel from home, thus limiting participation in society. Mobility is a core function that reflects the lifestyle of community-dwelling adults and is an important predictor of morbidity and mortality."


Contact: Bob Shepard
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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