WEDNESDAY, May 6, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Older Americans aren't taking old age sitting down. Canes, walkers and other mobility aids are used by about one-quarter of American seniors, a new study reveals.
Use of canes and other mobility devices soared almost 50 percent over a recent eight-year period, according to interviews of more than 7,600 Medicare beneficiaries.
And nearly 10 percent of seniors use more than one mobility device, researchers found.
Experts attribute this jump to several factors -- from an aging population to recognition of the need to keep moving in old age.
"It may also be that these devices are just more socially acceptable," said study lead author Nancy Gell, an assistant professor of rehabilitation and movement science at the University of Vermont. "Or that changes in the environment have improved accessibility for those who use them. Or that as people live longer there is simply more disability, and a growing need."
Her study found that mobility device usage among adults 65 and older went up from 16 percent to 24 percent between 2004 and 2012.
Dr. Lauren Gleason, a geriatric medicine fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said the degree of the jump is a little surprising.
"But people are living longer. And there's also more community knowledge about the risk of falling, which might have led to a greater acceptance of devices," she noted.
One other possibility: Seniors are increasingly living in the community to an older age, Gleason said. "That means fewer are entering nursing homes, but it also means more are probably living at home with higher disability and more need for help," she added.
Gell also pointed out that some folks might be correcting a long-unmet need, meaning that access to mobility devices may be improving.
She and her colleagues discuss their findings in the May 6 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
For the study, Gell's team compared data collected between 2011 and 2012 as part of the National Health and Aging Trends Study with figures from the 2004 Healthy and Retirement Study.
None of the seniors interviewed was institutionalized. All were asked about their pain history, vision impairment, and balance and coordination. Researchers also tested their ability to walk, lift, carry, bend, reach and/or grasp.
All were also asked which, if any, mobility devices they used, and whether or not they had fallen down (or worried about falling down) in the prior year.
Investigators concluded that an estimated 8.5 million seniors use mobility devices. Canes, the top choice, are used by more than 16 percent of seniors, while just over 2 percent get around on scooters, the least popular device.
Overall, the team found that women were 20 to 30 percent more likely to use a mobility device than men (depending on specific age ranges). Device use was also generally higher among blacks, Hispanics and those who were obese, or had a history of pain, balance or coordination problems.
However, the researchers said seniors who use a mobility device appear no more likely to fall than seniors who did not.
"We did not look at whether mobility devices directly prevent falls," Gell said, adding that some previous studies have suggested that devices may actually contribute to falls. "You might expect that users are probably more at risk for falls to begin with, but we found that devices do not appear to increase falling risk," she said.
People realize that staying active is a key component to staying healthy, Gell noted. What's interesting, she added, is that many older adults use more than one mobility device.
"They don't just use a cane or just use a walker," she said. "They're using a range of devices, which is actually intuitive, because you want them to use the device that matches their situation, which can be fluid throughout the day."
There's more on mobility devices at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.