Most of us know that falls are dangerous for elderly adults. In fact, the the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that twenty percent of falls cause serious injuries, including broken bones and head trauma. Just the very fear of falling can affect a senior’s quality of life and keep them from being active and thriving adults.
Here are some other scary facts about geriatric falls:
- At least 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures each year in the US
- Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries for seniors aged 65 plus
- Over 95 percent of hip fractures are caused by falling, most often by falling sideways
- The most common cause of traumatic brain injuries are falls
- A fall injury can lead to a loss of independence in elderly adults
Due to these risks, many older adults, their family and their caregivers are rightly concerned about fall prevention. While it is not possible to completely prevent all falls, it is possible to reduce the chances of having a bad fall and to reduce some of the risk factors.
Why Do Falls Happen?
When we experience some kind of situation that challenges our strength or balance and it overwhelms our ability to remain vertical, gravity does its thing and down, down we go.
Young, healthy people usually have the wherewithal to catch themselves mid-stumble, recalibrate their balance and recover before they hit the ground hard. Not always, of course. Falls can catch anyone of any age off guard. But older people, especially if frail or ill, have a much more challenging time quickly adjusting to off-balancing circumstances. This is evident in how frequently patients fall when they are infirm in the hospital.
Risk of falling can be attributed to the following factors:
- Health-based risks
Health-based risks can include things like balance issues, weakness, slower reflexes, vision problems, chronic illnesses and side-effects of medication. Diabetes, for example, can cause blood sugar fluctuations and numb feet that can make someone off-kilter.
- Environmental risks
Environmental risks include things like home hazards (like a loose rug, clutter on the stairs or poor lighting), outdoor hazards (like wet sidewalks or an icy road), or risky clothing (like high heel shoes or a droopy pants hem). Ironically, assistive devices like walkers and canes can be a tripping hazard if care is not taken when using them.
- Other Tripping Triggers
Sudden events that challenge one’s balance or strength can lead to a fall, such as a dog pulling on a leash or someone bumping into you.
Often there are multiple factors involved in a fall, so reducing any of these risks is a steady step in the right direction. No two people are the same, so tailor your fall prevention plan to the types of risks that are most prominent to you.
Tips for Preventing Falls
Many people think of falls as a normal part of aging, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some proactive things you can do to try and minimize your risks of falling.
Some people think the best way to prevent falls is to limit activity and stay at home. This isn’t the case. Being physically active helps you stay independent longer. Start a weight-bearing exercise program that improves your leg strength, balance, coordination, flexibility and gait, such as walking, water workouts or tai chi. Better leg strength also helps you be able to get up after a fall, which is important as remaining down for hours or days can be dangerous to an elderly person’s health.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review the medicines you take, and to assess them in terms of how they might contribute to imbalance or unsteadiness. To help with fall prevention, your health care provider may consider weaning you off medications that affect your thinking or make you tired, such as sedatives or antidepressants.
Have an annual eye check-up and make sure your glasses prescription is up to date.
Have your ears checked, as balance issues are often ear related.
Make your home safer. See our post on home safety devices and modifications that can help in fall prevention.
Check for signs of osteoporosis, and take steps to improve bone strength to protect you if you do fall.
Wear sensible shoes. Footwear such as high heels, flip floppy slippers and shoes with slippery soles can make you fall, as can walking around in socks. Wear properly fitting, sturdy shoes or indoor slippers with nonskid soles.
Have a Medical Assessment After a Fall
Research suggests if you go down once, your chances of falling again are doubled. Busy doctors often just address the immediate injuries they are presented with, rather than looking into the factors that contributed to the tumble in the first place. Push to get a thorough medical assessment that reviews factors like:
- Underlying health conditions such as blood pressure or blood sugar fluctuations, dehydration, a urinary tract infection or some other issue you may not be aware of.
- Medications that might contribute to an unbalanced state. For example, a Yale study found that adults over the age of 70 taking blood pressure medication have a higher risk of serious falls requiring an ER visit.
- Have your doctor evaluate your walking style or gait to see if there are any muscle tone issues that need to be addressed.