Physical Resilience in Older Adults: Systematic Review and Development of an Emerging Construct

J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2016 Apr;71(4):489-95. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glv202. Epub 2015 Dec 29.


Background: Resilience has been described in the psychosocial literature as the capacity to maintain or regain well-being during or after adversity. Physical resilience is a newer concept that is highly relevant to successful aging. Our objective was to characterize the emerging construct of resilience as it pertains to physical health in older adults, and to identify gaps and opportunities to advance research in this area.

Methods: We conducted a systematic review to identify English language papers published through January 2015 that apply the term "resilience" in relation to physical health in older adults. We applied a modified framework analysis to characterize themes in implicit or explicit definitions of physical resilience.

Results: Of 1,078 abstracts identified, 49 articles met criteria for inclusion. Sixteen were letters or concept papers, and only one was an intervention study. Definitions of physical resilience spanned cellular to whole-person levels, incorporated many outcome measures, and represented three conceptual themes: resilience as a trait, trajectory, or characteristic/capacity.

Conclusions: Current biomedical literature lacks consensus on how to define and measure physical resilience. We propose a working definition of physical resilience at the whole person level: a characteristic which determines one's ability to resist or recover from functional decline following health stressor(s). We present a conceptual framework that encompasses the related construct of physiologic reserve. We discuss gaps and opportunities in measurement, interactions across contributors to physical resilience, and points of intervention.

Keywords: Disablement process; Frailty; Physical function; Physiology; Successful aging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Physical Fitness / physiology*
  • Physical Fitness / psychology*
  • Resilience, Psychological*