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Obesity trend means more people are using canes and walkers

July 28, 2010

The rising rate of obesity means more people are using mobility devices, such as canes and grab bars, and at younger ages than ever before, according to a study released Wednesday by researchers at Purdue University.

Mobility devices have, traditionally, been used by frail elderly people or individuals recovering from an illness or injury. In those cases, people usually receive some instruction on how to use the devices. But more people appear to be using mobility devices in order to cope with obesity. Those individuals may not receive instructions and run the risk of using the devices incorrectly, the authors said.

The study followed more than 1,000 people, ages 65 and older, and tracked their body weight and use of mobility devices for 10 years. One-third of the people used at least one device. Obesity was one of the factors that predicted the need for mobility devices. The most popular devices were shower seats, tub stools, grab or handle bars for bathing, walkers, canes and raised toilet seats.

"Being obese and disabled also fuels a vicious cycle," a coauthor of the study, Kenneth F. Ferraro, said in a news release. "When you are functionally limited, physical activity is restricted, thereby burning fewer calories, which may lead to additional weight gain. This is another reminder that body weight matters throughout the life course."

It may be wise to consult with a physical therapist or other health professional before turning to a mobility device for help, the authors said. Using a device like a walker too soon may reduce lower-body function even further.

The study is published in the journal The Gerontologist.

-- Shari Roan

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