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Rehabilitation Science – Helping Seniors Regain Quality of Life

Many older adults are affected by health conditions or diseases that can make it difficult to carry out tasks involved in daily living. Rehabilitation – in the form of physical therapy, occupational therapy and other disciplines – can help older adults to improve their everyday function and overall quality of life. Rehabilitation science is a specialized branch of science dedicated to informing these therapists about the most effective, leading-edge interventions for regaining strength and function. “Rehabilitation science is an interdisciplinary field of science that investigates the effects of health conditions and disease processes on a person’s ability to fully engage in all the activities of daily living,” explains UAB Associate Professor of Physical Therapy David Brown, PT, Ph.D. “Using a variety of research methods, rehabilitation scientists investigate questions regarding how health conditions and diseases affect the body’s ability to function and how this impacts movements and daily tasks.”

Investigating Diseases that Affect Movement and Function

Dr. Brown says there are several main categories of health conditions that affect movement and quality of life, such as:

  • Neuromuscular, including stroke, traumatic brain injury, and Parkinson’s disease
  • Musculoskeletal, including arthritis, osteoporosis, and low back pain
  • Cognitive and psychological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Metabolic abnormalities, including diabetes and obesity

“Rehabilitation scientists use both quantitative and qualitative data gathering techniques to study how these health conditions and diseases affect an individual’s ability to function,” Dr. Brown explains. “Quantitative studies typically involve a controlled experimental intervention to target a hypothesized factor that is affecting the body’s function,” he adds. “Qualitative research methods involve observation of patients with the goal of trying to understand patients’ limitations from their perspectives. This information is used to identify factors for more targeted experiments.” Dr. Brown says that rehabilitation scientists investigate a range of interventions that have the potential to improve everyday function in older adults. “These interventions run the gamut from cellular, to genetic, to behavioral,” he explains. Optimal interventions used to help those with functional limitations due to health conditions or diseases might include:

  • Medications to improve function
  • Exercise interventions aimed at regaining strength, mobility, and range of motion
  • Nerve regeneration or gene therapy
  • Behavior modification, such as promoting weight loss, exercise, and smoking cessation

“Rehabilitation scientists are dedicated to finding the most effective interventions to improve function for those who have lost the ability to engage in all of the activities of daily living due to a health condition or disease,” adds Dr. Brown. “Clinicians – such as physical therapists and occupational therapists – are an important part of this process because they carry out these interventions.”

Delay Aging with Physical Activity

Dr. Brown says that much recent research has been conducted in the field of rehabilitation science regarding ways to delay or reverse certain aspects of natural aging, such as declining mental and physical function. “Research in this area indicates that anyone can become stronger and more mentally sharp by continually challenging themselves as they age,” Dr. Brown stresses. “For example, we have found through research that if we give older adults a challenging training environment in which to practice balance and walking, they significantly improve their ability by adapting to and overcoming these challenges.” He says that research indicates that if older adults allow reduced activity to become a way of life, this is more harmful than if they were to challenges themselves in athletic situations. “Older adults should continually look for ways to challenge themselves intellectually and physically in order to age well,” he says. “The human body is very conducive to change, and there are many ways rehabilitation can help older adults become stronger both mentally and physically in order to maintain the highest possible quality of life.”

Article last updated: March 27, 2013 3:41 PM