Older Americans who have difficulty walking may not have to suffer for long—it appears that many people improve their walking ability within two years, particularly those aged 53 to 70 years.

Joe Feinglass, PhD, of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and others analyzed the factors associated with improvements in walking ability among 6,574 men and women aged 53 and older participating in the national Health and Retirement Study (HRS). While walking ability got no better and no worse in 40%, and 31% experienced a worsening of walking ability or died, nearly one third—29%—saw improvements  (Am J Public Health. 2009;99:533-539).

HRS respondents were asked whether a health problem made it difficult for them to walk across a room, walk one block, or walk several blocks. Two years later, the same question was posed again. The youngest group of participants—those 53 to 70 at the time of the first survey—reported the greatest walking improvements by the second survey, with 40% having less difficulty. Among those 71 to 80, 26% improved, as did 17% of those 81 or older.

People who were overweight but not obese, did not smoke, and engaged in regular, vigorous physical activity were the most likely to improve; those with poor vision, stroke, or diabetes were the least likely. Diabetes was the only chronic condition independently associated with a lower likelihood of improved walking.

A second walking-related study from the Feinberg School of Medicine showed that people with peripheral arterial disease (PAD) can especially benefit from this simple form of exercise. Mary M. McDermott, MD, and co-investigators report in JAMA that PAD patients who participated in supervised treadmill exercise improved their walking endurance and their quality of life (2009;301:165-174).