By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
I had one of those eye-opening experiences, the kind you can only have when you've been away from home awhile. I was on assignment in Europe for a year and came back home to visit my sister in New York. She lives in a relatively upscale area and I had not visited her in a few years. Just people watching from a cafe one day it hit me what was so different this time --- so many people were using walkers. I started counting and, roughly, for every person who looked over 60, a good third of them seemed were either using walkers of scooters or canes? Could this be right? Had there been some sort of epidemic in hip surgeries I was not aware of ? What was behind the sudden increase in the number of walking devices I was seeing?
Yes, The Use of Walkers in America Has Skyrocketed
The research confirmed that what I was suspecting was in fact a real phenomenon. According to the University of Iowa study led by Dr. Robert Wallace, the prevalence of use of walkers and other devices to assist in mobility has increased by 50% since 2004.
Today, one in every four Americans over the age of 65 uses some sort of mobility device.
What's more, nearly 33% of those who used mobility devices use more than one such device.
What's Behind the Dramatic Increase in Walkers and Other Mobility Aids?
The fact is that walkers are being prescribed by doctors more and more as aids to prevent falls. Between 25% and 40% of Americans over the age of 65 falls each year, according to the University of Iowa. Falls are the number one cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries to Americans over the age of 65.
To help those who are at risk for falling, doctors prescribe walkers to help stabilize the body.
But why the sudden increase in such prescriptions since 2004? Haven't the factors that would increase your risk for falling always existed?
The University of Iowa speculates that one of the reasons could include increases awareness of the dangers of falling, correction of an under-use of walkers in previous decades or increasing obesity, leading to higher risk of falling.
I would venture another guess. Perhaps doctors are practicing lawsuit-prevention medicine. If a patient has fallen in the past or is at high risk for falling and the doctor does not prescribe a walker, the doctor may be sued for malpractice if the patient subsequently falls.
For this reason, doctors at be hesitant to encourage patients to try other means to improve their mobility, such as doing an exercise program.
Moreover, using walkers may stabilize your body but they also may harm you emotionally. There are certain psychological downsides to using walkers. People who use walkers perceive themselves are disabled, less functional and more unhealthy, even more so than people who have fallen down and decided not to se walkers. This is the surprising finding of a 2007 study led by the Stein Gerontological Institute in Miami and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center of Miami.
Can Exercise Help You Avoid Using Walkers?
Many different underlying medical conditions or incidents precede the use of walkers --- falling, arthritic hips, knees, ankles, and others. In many cases, exercise can not only help you to avoid using a walker but it can also help the underlying condition that made you consider using a walker in the first place.
The types of exercise you can do, for example, to stabilize your knees include knee extensions and halfway squats. the key to any successful program is to start very, very slowly and only increase what you can do very, very gradually over a period of months.
In between sessions, give back to your joints by using warm compresses. Consider joint supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin and krill oil.
Exercise also reduces your fear of falling, according to a 2014 study carried out by the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.