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Overview of Prevention in the Elderly

By Magda Lenartowicz, MD, Medical Director, Scan Health Plan

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For the elderly, prevention focuses mainly on disease, frailty, accidents (ie, unintentional injury), iatrogenic complications, psychosocial problems, and maintaining ability to perform activities of daily living. Not all elderly patients benefit from every preventive measure. Choice of preventive measures is guided by whether the patient’s general condition is:

  • Healthy

  • Chronically ill

  • Frail/complex

Healthy elderly people have minimal or no chronic disease and are functionally independent. Primary and secondary prevention of disease and prevention of frailty are the most beneficial measures for this group.

Chronically ill people typically have several noncurable but treatable diseases, are usually functionally independent or minimally dependent, often take several prescription drugs, and occasionally are hospitalized for exacerbations of their chronic diseases. Secondary and tertiary prevention of disease and prevention of frailty are priorities, as are primary prevention of disease and prevention of iatrogenic complications and accidents.

Chronically ill patients should learn about their diseases and treatment plans, as should their caregivers. Regular physician visits and prompt reporting of a change in symptoms can help reduce severe disease exacerbations, which can lead to hospitalization and functional decline.

Frail/complex people typically have many severe chronic diseases, are functionally dependent, and have lost their physiologic reserve. They are frequently hospitalized and institutionalized. For them, prevention of accidents and iatrogenic complications is most important.

Caregivers of the frail elderly must work assiduously to prevent accidents by completing a home safety checklist and correcting any potential problems that are identified. Caregivers should watch for even subtle functional changes in elderly patients and promptly report any changes to a health care practitioner. If a patient has multiple unmet needs, especially when coupled with functional decline, a caregiver should consider seeking the care of a geriatric interdisciplinary team.

General preventive measures

Some preventive measures that apply to all elderly people include

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