While the risks of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes get most of the attention, one of the single, biggest threats to your health is the danger of falling. The numbers are staggering.
1 in 3 adults over the age of 65 fall every year. Every 20 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall in the United States, an average of 74 seniors a day. One senior falls every second of every day in America. Falls cause over 325,000 broken hips a year, of which 40% end up in a nursing home and 20% never walk again!
While falls are surging, they aren't a normal part of aging. Research from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), reveals that the majority of falls in the elderly are preventable. Ignore the risks, and your chances of falling can increase to close to 100%!
What Causes Falls?
Falls don't start magically happening because you reached a certain age. There's usually a number of causes all working at the same time that increase the odds of a fall.
According to Dr. Gaynes, of the CDC, "falls are often the result of muscle weakness or poor balance, and that's [sic] combined with some environmental condition such as a tripping hazard, a cord or a throw rug. Other cause are side effects of medicines like tranquilizers or sleeping pills and also not being able to see well."
There also several health conditions which can also impact your balance or mobility, such as arthritis, diabetes, stroke or Parkinson's, which increase your risk of falling.
The three biggest risk factors for falls in the elderly are:
1. Poor balance
2. Taking more than four prescription medications
3. Muscle weakness
If you have all three risk factors at the same time, your risk of falling increases to nearly 100%, which should give you all the reason in the world to take the issue seriously and follow the fall prevention plan below.
5 Steps to Avoid Falls in the Elderly
1. Talk to your doctor
- Talk with your doctor if you've had a fall within the last year, feel unsteady or fear a fall. Most older adults do not report minor falls, but they could be symptomatic of a problem which can be addressed.
- Have your doctor and pharmacist review all your medications, including over the counter medicines. Some medications or combinations can increase dizziness, drowsiness or confusion, causing falls.
- Ask your doctor whether you should be taking vitamin D supplements, which can improve muscle strength, gait and bone density, reducing the likelihood of a fall and the severity of injury from falls.
2. Check your vision
- Vision issues, like glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration and multi-focal lenses all increase your risk of falling.
- See your eye doctor at least once a year to check and update your prescription, as necessary.
3. Check your feet
- Foot pain, especially from plantar fasciitis, increases your risk of falling. Foot assessment, foot pain management, and proper footwear play important roles in fall prevention.
- Avoid high heels, avoid slippers without backing over your heel, wear shoes and boots that remain tacky in wet and winter conditions, wear properly fitting shoes.
4. Stay active
- Activities that help leg strength and balance reduce your risk of falling.
- Lack of exercise increases your risk of falling.
- Activities like walking 30 minutes a day, swimming, biking, tennis, Tai Chi or Yoga will help with lower leg strength and balance. Alternatively you can enroll in evidence based fall prevention classes for seniors, such as the YMCA's Moving for Better Balance.
5. Make your home safe
- Remove tripping hazards like laundry baskets, shoes, books, boxes, phone lines, electrical cords, etc...
- Remove or tape down the edges of area rugs and oriental carpets.
- Place frequently used items within easy reach. Avoid using a stool, step ladder or standing on your tippy toes.
- Install grab bars next to your toilets, in your bathtubs and shower.
- Install handrails on both sides of indoor and outdoor staircases.
- Install non-slip mats and/or tape in the shower and bathtub.
- Install good lighting throughout your house / apartment, especially in stairways. This includes night lights between your bedroom and well traveled areas like the bathroom or kitchen.
Reduce The Severity of Injury From Falls
One of the biggest risks of injury from falling, according to research published in the British Medical Journal, is lying on the floor alone for an extended period of time. For older adults especially, the risks of hypothermia, dehydration, pneumonia and even death rise dramatically, the longer they lie on the floor after falling.
Unfortunately, almost 88% of older adults who fall, do so when they're alone, and 4 out of 5 need help getting up. As a result, most hospitals and doctors recommend patients at risk of falling get a monitored medical alert system. Getting help within the first hour of a fall, dramatically reduces the severity of your injury, and medical alert systems allow you to get help within minutes, even if you're alone and need help.
Medical alert systems automatically detect falls, work in and outside the home, in the shower and allow you to press the pendent button in the event of a fall, getting you the help you need in a matter of minutes. The life alert cost, compared to an in-home caregiver, also makes it an attractive solution.
While falls are a significant risk for the elderly, with dire health consequences such as concussions, broken hips, wrists and arms and often lead to loss of independence, they aren't an inevitable part of aging. Understand what causes falls and take some of the precautions listed above to dramatically lower your risk of falling or sustaining a significant injury from a fall.