Falls in the Elderly – A Leading Health Concern

If you or an older person you know has fallen, you’re not alone.

According to the CDC, one out of every five falls causes a serious injury requiring some form of hospitalization. Falls are also the most common cause of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, among the elderly. With nearly 800,000 people hospitalized per year for a serious injury sustained as the result of a fall, senior falls are now one of the leading health concerns for our aging population.

In the United States, more than 1/3 of adults 65 and older fall each year. About 5.8 million people in this age group fell at least once during a recent 3-month period. Besides injuries caused by senior falls, the simple fear of falling can impact the lives of seniors by causing a reduction in their level of activity. This, in turn, leads to a decline in mobility and physical fitness, which can increase the actual risk of another fall.

Senior falls account for many injuries and even deaths, and the risk can be significantly reduced by using fall prevention practices or implementing a fall prevention program. Additionally, a lack of muscle tone and stamina that occurs with older age can cause poor balance. Poor eyesight or dimly lit hallways, bathrooms and stairwells are also big causes of senior falls.

The fear of falling becomes more common as people age, even among those who haven’t fallen. It may lead older people to avoid activities such as walking, shopping, or taking part in social activities.

Many things can cause a fall. Your eyesight, hearing, and reflexes might not be as sharp as they were when you were younger. Diabetes, heart disease, or problems with your thyroid, nerves, feet, or blood vessels can affect your balance. Some medicines can cause you to feel dizzy or sleepy, making you more likely to fall. Other causes include safety hazards in the home or community environment.

Scientists have linked several personal risk factors to falling, including muscle weakness, problems with balance and gait, and blood pressure that drops too much when you get up from lying down or sitting (called postural hypotension). Foot problems that cause pain and unsafe footwear, like backless shoes or high heels, can also increase your risk of falling.

Confusion can sometimes lead to falls. For example, if you wake up in an unfamiliar environment, you might feel unsure of where you are. If you feel confused, wait for your mind to clear or until someone comes to help you before trying to get up and walk around.

Some medications can increase a person’s risk of falling because they cause side effects like dizziness or confusion. The more medications you take, the more likely you are to fall.

If you take care of your overall health, you may be able to lower your chances of falling. Most of the time, falls and accidents don’t “just happen.” Here are a few tips to help you avoid falls and broken bones:

Stay physically active. Plan an exercise program that is right for you. Regular exercise improves muscles and makes you stronger. It also helps keep your joints, tendons, and ligaments flexible. Mild weight-bearing activities, such as walking or climbing stairs, may slow bone loss from osteoporosis.

Have your eyes and hearing tested. Even small changes in sight and hearing may cause you to fall. When you get new eyeglasses or contact lenses, take time to get used to them. Always wear your glasses or contacts when you need them. If you have a hearing aid, be sure it fits well and wear it.

Find out about the side effects of any medicine you take. If a drug makes you sleepy or dizzy, tell your doctor or pharmacist.

Get enough sleep. If you are sleepy, you are more likely to fall.

Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Even a small amount of alcohol can affect your balance and reflexes. Studies show that the rate of hip fractures in older adults increases with alcohol use.

Stand up slowly. Getting up too quickly can cause your blood pressure to drop. That can make you feel wobbly. Get your blood pressure checked when lying and standing.

Use an assistive device if you need help feeling steady when you walk. Appropriate use of canes and walkers can prevent falls. If your doctor tells you to use a cane or walker, make sure it is the right size for you and the wheels roll smoothly. This is important when you’re walking in areas you don’t know well or where the walkways are uneven.

Having healthy bones won’t prevent a fall, but if you fall, it might prevent breaking a hip or other bone, which may lead to a hospital or nursing home stay, disability, or even death. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D can help keep your bones strong; so can physical activity.

Other ways to maintain bone health include quitting smoking and limiting alcohol use, which can decrease bone mass and increase the chance of fractures.

Osteoporosis is a disease that makes bones weak and more likely to break. For people with osteoporosis, even a minor fall may be dangerous. Talk to your doctor about osteoporosis.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. He is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics. For more good health information listen to Glenn, on radio in Philadelphia; Boston; Shreveport; Los Angeles; and Birmingham., or visit: www.glennellis.com.