Tag Archives: Walking

Could frailty screening help extend our working lives?

The Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, Andy Briggs, has called for one million more older people to be in work by 2022. But to enjoy the benefits of working longer, we need to remain in good health. Professor Keith Palmer from the University of Southampton and colleagues investigated whether signs of frailty in mid-life can predict difficulties in continuing to work later on. Here he outlines their findings and makes the case for developing screening to identify those workers most in need of support.

By 2020 the over-50s will comprise almost one third of the UK’s working age population, and more recent Government policies, including changes to the age at which we can claim our State Pension, have been focused on extending our working lives.

But, according to the Centre for Ageing Better, the single biggest reason for people leaving the workforce before retirement age is health, and nearly half of all people between ages 50 and 64 have a long-term health condition. The charitable foundation has been highlighting the need for more support to allow older people to continue to work.

For people with poor health, previous studies have shown that extending their working lives may not be in their best interests. Our research is the first to measure frailty and symptoms of pre-frailty in people aged 50-65 and determine whether and how it is associated with employment difficulties. The idea was to see if there is a way to identify early those people most likely to find it difficult to continue working.

We used information about more than 8,000 people collected through the Health and Employment After Fifty (HEAF) Study, which involves patients from 24 geographically-dispersed GP practices in England.

They answered a range of questions about whether they suffered from exhaustion, had a slow walking speed, a weak grip (determined by whether they had problems opening new jars), low levels of physical activity and whether they had unintentional weight loss in the past year.

People with more than three of the above symptoms were classed as ‘frail’, while those with one or two symptoms were classed as ‘pre-frail’.

They were also asked employment-related questions: were they currently working and, if not, had their previous job ended for health reasons?

Those in work were asked:

  • their total sickness absence over the past 12 months
  • had they needed to cut down at work because of their health?
  • were they coping with the physical and mental demands of their work?
  • Did they expect to be able to do the same work in two years’ time?
  • Was their job secure?
  • Did their work affect their sleep?

Information about their well-being, including back and other pain, was also collected, and participants’ jobs were classified as higher managerial, intermediate or routine/manual.

Health problems

More than one third of the women, and 27 per cent of the men studied were no longer working. Of these, around one third of both sexes said they had left their job because of a health problem.

Disorders or pain affecting movement, such as bone, joint or nerve problems, and mental illness, were the most common reasons for stopping work.

Many of those still working reported difficulties with their jobs, with between 6 and 7 per cent having taken 20 or more days’ sick leave in the last year. Around one third reported problems coping with work’s physical demands, and 20 per cent said their job was insecure.

Four per cent of the group studied were classed as ‘frail’ and, within this group, more than three-quarters reported low physical activity, weak grip and slow walking speed, with women more likely to report symptoms. Nearly one third of the participants were classed as ‘pre-frail’.

When work situations were taken into account, we found three quarters of those classified as ‘frail’ were no longer working, with 60 per cent of these leaving their job for a health reason. Only a quarter of the ‘non-frail’ participants had stopped working.

The odds of not being in paid work were more than ten times higher for frail compared with non-frail participants, while the likelihood of leaving work for health reasons was higher still (up 30-fold). In frail people who were in work, the odds of prolonged sick leave, cutting down a lot at work and struggling with work’s physical demands were about 11 to 17 times greater than for non-frail workers.

‘Pre-frail’ subjects also had more work problems, although not to the same extent as frail subjects. For example, their odds of health-related job loss were up 3.7-fold, and their odds of having prolonged sick leave or having to cut down a lot at work in the past year were up 2.5 to 3-fold.

Frailty effect

The impact of frailty on not being in work, taking more sick leave, and not coping with work demands was about 2–3 times greater among those from poorer backgrounds. However, we found ‘frailty’ was strongly associated with poor work outcomes even for those in higher managerial positions.

Looking at the frailty symptoms individually, we found most of the work problems to be most strongly linked with slow walking speed. Strong links were also found with poor grip strength and exhaustion.

Our findings showed strong associations between certain symptoms, for example those with slow-walking speed also tended to be exhausted or have a weak grip. Similarly, there were links between weak grip and exhaustion, and slow walking speed and low physical activity.

Strong associations

While our findings need further follow up, assessing the same group of patients over time to confirm the links between different physical symptoms and future work problems, our large sample size has confirmed frailty symptoms are common in people aged 50-65.

As the first study linking frailty and pre-frailty symptoms to work outcomes, we have shown strong associations with worklessness, health-related job loss, sickness absence and not coping at work.

Through further study, these symptoms could be refined to form the basis for simple screening tests for older workers, and spearhead the development of targeted support to improve physical function in those most at risk.

To realise the call of the Government’s older workers’ champion for one million more older people to be in work in five years’ time, identifying those most likely to struggle to remain in the workplace will be crucial.

The Government, NHS and employers will need to heed the call from the Centre for Ageing Better to develop workplace adaptations and age-friendly practices, and extend occupational health support and targeted preventive approaches that help people stay in work and stay well.

Further information

Frailty, prefrailty and employment outcomes in Health and Employment After Fifty (HEAF) Study is research by Keith Palmer, Stefania D’Angelo, Clare Harris, Cathy Linaker, Catharine Gale, Maria Evandrou, Holly Syddall, Cyrus Cooper, Avan Sayer, David Coggon and Karen Walker-Bone of the University of Southampton and Tjeerd van Staa of the University of Manchester. It is published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Photo credit: Roberto Trombetta

How travelling to work can work for you

There can’t be too many commuters who aren’t now aware that ditching the car and walking to work is much better for them. Considerable evidence has shown that walkers and cyclists are likely to weigh less and be slimmer than their car commuting counterparts. What they may be less aware of is that ditching the car in favour of the bus, train or the tube could have nearly the same benefits. A programme of research by a team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, UCL has been taking a closer look at the benefits of being an ‘active commuter’. As researcher Ellen Flint explains, the findings point to some clear ways forward, not just for individuals, but for policy makers too.

Physical inactivity and being sedentary for large parts of the day are a leading cause of obesity and premature death. In England alone something like two thirds of adults do not meet the recommended levels of daily exercise. At the same time there are growing numbers of people commuting to work. In England and Wales that figure is around 24 million people, 67% of whom take the car.

The time of life when most adults become obese is in middle age, with 50-65 year-olds less than half as likely as young adults aged 16-29 to use public transport, nearly half as likely to walk to and from work and two thirds less likely to get on their bikes. So it’s this age group that we have focused on in our programme of research looking at the relationship between active commuting and obesity in mid life.

To help us do this, we have used information from a long term household survey called Understanding Society and a large study called UK Biobank.

Public transport benefits

Our first piece of research used Understanding Society and showed us that not just walking or cycling to work but even catching the bus or the tube are all linked to lower body weight and body fat composition compared with those who get to work by car.

7,534 BMI and 7,424 percentage body fat measurements from men and women who took part in the survey were used in conjunction with information about journeys to work.

Men who commuted via public or active modes had BMI scores around 1 point lower than those who used private transport, equating to a difference in weight of 3kg (almost half a stone) for the average man.

Women who commuted via public or active transport had BMI scores around 0.7 points lower than their private transport using counterparts, equating to a difference in weight of 2.5kg (5.5lb) for the average woman.

When it came to body fat, men who actively travelled to work (walking, cycling or public transport) had body fat that was roughly one per cent point lower than those who commuted by car, confirming the picture seen when looking at BMI.

What’s important to note here is that these differences are larger than those seen in the majority of individually focused diet and physical activity interventions to prevent overweight and obesity.

Second study reinforces

In work just published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, we were able to use information from more than 70,000 men and 80,000 women aged 40-69.

More than 60% of these people commuted by car, with only 4 percent and 7 percent respectively reporting walking as their only method of commute and 4 percent and 2 percent cycling. Around one in five was an active commuter some or all of the time.

Except for those who mixed car and public transport, all other groups had significantly lower BMI and percentage body fat than those men and women who ONLY commuted by car.

The biggest differences were for cyclists and the results stayed strong even when we accounted for a wide range of other factors such as social and economic background, their general health and even whether or not they did exercise outside of their daily commute.

The men who cycled were around 5 kg lighter whilst women cyclists were on average nearly 4.5kg lighter than their car commuting counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, walking to work had the next biggest association with reduced obesity. Compared with their car commuting counterparts, men who walked to work were on average 3.0kg lighter; and women typically weighed 2.1kg less.

However, what was perhaps more interesting, and what also reinforced our interesting earlier findings from Understanding Society, was that even those who used a mixture of public transport and active methods of commuting still had significantly lower BMI and body fat percentage than those who commuted exclusively by car.

In fact, it was similar to those who only walked to work. Compared with car commuters, men and women who mixed public transport with some walking or cycling typically weighed 3.1kg and 2.0kg less, respectively.

Active commuting at heart of policy

Separately these two studies make interesting reading, but together they combine to make a powerful and growing body of evidence around the benefits of active commuting and do more than hint at potential interventions for policy makers.

There is now a clear case for the health benefits of active commuting to be taken into consideration by transport planners, town planners and urban designers.

Cities can be active by design and the more evidence that we have to confirm that people who commute actively really are lighter and have a healthier body composition, the more impetus there is for these health related outcomes to be at the heart of policy.

It is time to realise the untapped population health improvements potential of these big shifts we can make in how people travel to and from work.

Photo credit: Chris Rubberdragon