You clutch the banister when climbing stairs, need 10 minutes to work out the kinks after getting out of bed in the morning, or cut back your weekend walks to give that wonky knee a break. Hey, we all expect to slow down as we grow older. But is a gimpy joint or teetering balance a normal part of aging, or a sign that you need help? The answer to that question matters — a lot.
A loss of mobility can kick off a cycle of trouble, says Mary O'Connor, M.D., director of the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at Yale New Haven Hospital. “Your knee hurts, you become less mobile and decrease your physical activity, but you're eating the same amount of food, so you gain weight. That added weight puts more pressure on your knee joints, which causes more pain.” And the results go beyond any arthritis, O'Connor notes. “Less physical activity, combined with obesity, can lead to heart disease, diabetes and hypertension."
Mobility challenges can take a psychological toll. Lindsey Yourman, M.D., an internist and geriatrician, in La Jolla, California, who's affiliated with the Jacobs Medical Center at University of California San Diego Health, points to something known as “life space,” which is the distance that you can walk to safely — which determines the environment that is available to you on a regular basis.
"Decreased life space can mean decreased interactions with other people and decreased engagement in activities, which can lead to isolation and depression,” she says.
And then there's the dreaded f-word. “Balance and mobility keep us from falling, and when older people fall, very bad things happen,” O'Connor says. “You could break a hip, require surgery, have to go to a rehab facility and lose your independence.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 alone, more than 1 in 4 older adults reported falling, and more than 28,000 of them died as a result — that amounts to 74 older adults every day. And then there is this sobering stat, notes O'Connor: 20 percent of patients who break their hip die within a year.