Aging Well

The Use of Canes and Other Mobility Devices Is on the Rise Among Older Adults

America’s population of senior citizens is growing, and with it a reliance on canes, wheelchairs and scooters. The use of walking aids has increased by 50 percent in the past decade, according to a study done at the University of Vermont and published in May 2015 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The researchers, led by Dr. Nancy Gell, expect that the increase will continue because the number of seniors is expected to double by 2050.

A release from the university written by Jon Reidel notes that the proliferation of senior mobility devices is surprising considering that prior research showed a correlation between device use and falling — the leading cause of death resulting from injury among adults 65 and older. Those who are fortunate enough to survive a fall spend more than $19 billion annually on directly related medical costs. Seniors will be happy to know that the latest National Health and Aging Trends (NHAT) study shows that those who use mobility devices are not falling more than those who do not.

The release quotes Gell, assistant professor of rehabilitation and movement science, as saying, “Previous research suggested that these devices may have altered the way people walk, thus contributing to falls, but those studies only looked within groups of people who used devices, who are already more likely to fall. This study is the most in-depth since 2004 and shows no link between mobility devices and falls as previously thought.”

Yet, the question remains: why do more than 25 percent of older Americans now rely on canes, walkers, wheelchairs and scooters? Is it laziness? Doctors’ overprescription? Has it become more socially acceptable? Or is it just an increase in the number of senior citizens?

Why the increased reliance on walking aids?

Gell, a physical therapist with a PhD in exercise science, sought the answers in her article based on an in-depth analysis of the NHAT study. She considered multiple factors including whether the increase is due to greater acceptability, greater longevity and a correction for unmet needs in previous decades. The main culprit could be the underlying problems leading to mobility device use in the first place such as obesity, strength deficiencies or issues with balance or cognition. More research is needed, she says, to understand if greater reliance is tied to physical issues such as obesity and weakness or to social issues such as greater acceptability and access.