We know that seniors fall at a higher rate than the general population. The CDC has established that nearly one third of adults over the age of 65 will fall each year and that falls are the leading cause of injury and injury related deaths among older adults.
But did you know that if you have dementia, COPD, diabetes or a heart condition your risk of falling is even higher?
In one study from Philips based on over 70,000 falls, 72% of seniors reported having at least one chronic condition while 20% reported having 5 or more! The chronic conditions associated with the most falls were:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),
- Heart condition
The risks from falling are enormous from broken hips to fractures, sprains, concussions, lacerations and bruises. But what's even more dangerous are the longer term consequences of a fall like loss of mobility, independence and social isolation.
Falls are often the result of more than one risk factor present at the same time. Risks include lack of strength, loss of balance, medications, cognitive decline, vision impairment and our physical environment. When two or more of these risks are present at the same time, the risks of a fall increase exponentially.
Dementia / Alzheimer's and Risk of Falling
People with dementia or alzheimer's are at a significantly higher risk of falling and are at a higher risk of suffering a serious injury from a fall, actually three times likelier to suffer a broken hip than other older adults.
The reasons why dementia increases the risk of falling are:
- Change in walking gait
- Lack of physical exercise
- Poor executive function
- Poor visual-spatial assessment
- Antipsychotic medications
- Wandering / restlessness
COPD and Risk of Falling
Several studies have shown that COPD is the second leading chronic disease leading to falls. Several research studies have shown that between 25%-46% of those suffering from COPD fall each year.
The reasons why COPD increases the risk of falling are:
- Lower leg weakness
- Poor walking gait
- Poor postural control
Diabetes and Risk of Falling
Diabetes has been shown to increase not only the likelihood, but also the severity of falls in older adults. The reasons why diabetes is believed to increase the risk of falling are:
- Nerve damage (neuropathy)
- Vision impairment (diabetic retinopathy)
- Impaired kidney (diabetic nephropathy), reduced levels of vitamin D leading to loss of bone density and muscle strength
- Joint inflammation, joint deformity
Heart Condition and Risk of Falling
Those who suffer from a heart conditions, such as heart failure, have been shown to have significantly higher fall risk scores than someone who didn't have a heart condition. The causes are numerous, such as:
- Poor respiration
- Inability to exercise
- Reduced cognitive function
- Postural hypotension (blood pressure falls when standing up or sitting down)
- Medications (benzodiazepines and digoxin)
Reduce the Risk of Falling from Chronic Conditions
Obviously not all chronic conditions can reduce the likelihood of falling by the same methods. That said, there are several things you can do to actively reduce your risk of falling, regardless of your condition:
- Improve your strength (using doctor approved exercises)
- Improve your balance (using doctor approved exercises)
- Prevent falls in your home (remove clutter, scatter rugs, add hand rails, grab bars, improve lighting)
- Get your eyes checked annually
- Review your medications with your doctor with fall prevention in mind
- Wear proper footwear
Prevent severity of falls:
- New technologies like medical alerts with automatic fall detection reduce the likelihood of complications arising from falls. Those without a fall detection solution have been shown to only get help with 2 to 72 hours after a fall. Those with automatic fall detection get help from emergency responders in less than a minute.
- Stay physically fit. Exercise, proper nutrition and supplementation if needed, have been shown to increase bone density and strength, lessening the likelihood of debilitating bone fractures from falls.
While falls are the leading cause of injury to older adults, they are also one of the most preventable forms of injuries to seniors. Understanding what causes falls, and whether you have a chronic condition which can increase the risk of you falling is critical to managing your risk. Take the risk seriously and discuss it with your doctor or schedule an appointment with a geriatrician to evaluate your risk and develop a fall prevention strategy tailored to your individual situation.