As we grow older, aging and mobility go off in different directions; the older we get, the less mobile we tend to be, and that includes getting behind the wheel of a car. "Healthy aging" is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the "development and maintenance of optimal physical, mental and social well-being and function in older adults."
This brings us to "optimal ability," which means being able to safely and reliably go where we want to go, when we want and in whichever mode we chose, whether it's walking a block or two for some fresh air or driving to the grocery to stock up for the fridge and pantry.
Not so fast, however, for many senior citizens, or even those still a few years away from fully qualifying for Social Security. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 31.7 percent of adults aged 65 and over report difficulty walking three city blocks, compared to just 11.3 percent for those between the ages of 45 and 64. Presumably, for those 65 and over, that percentage goes north the older you get.
Issues associated with aging and declining mobility aren't just problems of inconvenience easily solved by the purchase of walkers or knowing how to keep driving in a world that goes faster all the time. Like a line of dominoes falling, mobility issues can be detrimental to so many other facets of an aging person's life. Consider these:
- Factors that limit the ability to get around, whether by walking or driving, can also translate to less access to goods and services, such as being able to shop for groceries or driving yourself to the doctor. Poor health outcomes can be the result, such as having fewer nutritional options at your fingertips.
- Mobility restrictions, to even include being able to get around in one's own home, can quickly lead to an increase in sedentary behavior, This in turn increases the chances of conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, various cancers, diminished cognitive function and depression.
- Mobility-impaired persons also run an increased risk of falls and vehicular mishaps, which, the NIH adds, are leading causes of disability, nursing home placement and even premature death among those 65 and older.
- There's also the social element. There, too, getting old can paint a bleak picture. Older adults with limited mobility, let alone extremely limited mobility, very likely will have much less social contact with loved ones, friends and acquaintances, at least on a regular basis. Social isolation can also be a contributing factor to a variety of unwanted health conditions.
In light of this, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) geriatricians have posited that mobility limitations are, as sciencedaily.com puts it, "a litmus test for healthy aging." Consequently, primary-care physicians are being urged to "take a more aggressive role in ascertaining the mobility of their older patients."
"Increased physical activity and exercise are extremely important for healthy aging," says Dr. Cynthia Brown, one of the authors of the UAB clinical review, quoted at sciencedaily.com. "We've also identified mobility-limiting risk factors and created an approach to help medical professionals screen for and treat those risk factors. . . . Mobility limitations are the edge of that slippery slope that leads to loss of function. . . . Mobility is a sort of barometer for how well an older person ages."
The UAB researchers, as cited at heath.harvard.edu, also identified some common factors, other than advancing age, that can lead to loss of mobility:
- Low physical activity
- Impaired strength and balance
- Chronic diseases such as diabetes and arthritis
Less-common warning signs include a recent hospitalization, consumption of alcohol, smoking, depression or feelings of helplessness.
If a possible mobility problem is perceived, there are two revealing questions to ask: 1) For health or physical reasons, do you have difficulty climbing up 10 steps or walking a quarter of a mile? and 2) Because of underlying health or physical reasons, have you modified the way you climb 10 steps or walk a quarter-mile? If the answers are "yes," (and you can ask them of yourself, and be honest), it's time to go see your doctor so he or she can work with you on solutions going forward.
If it comes to this, you can walk, don't run, to the doctor's. Happy trails!