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Successful Aging: Avoiding falls is an important part of staying healthy

Q. Recently two of my friends in their late 70’s fell outside their home – one on a waxed floor at a theater; the other tripping over the cement barriers in a parking lot – at night. One suffered a concussion; the other a broken wrist. I know the basics of how to prevent falls in my home. What are the tips to stay safe while outside. S.D.

Dear S.D.

Your question is timely and important. It is timely because September 22, the first day of fall, marked the 10th annual National Falls Prevention Awareness Day, sponsored by the National Council on Aging. It is important because a simple fall for an older adult can be life-changing.

Here are some facts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Being 65 and older is a risk factor for falls. One in four Americans aged 65+ falls each year.

  • Every 11 seconds, emergency rooms treat an older adult for a fall.

  • Falls are deadly. Every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.

  • Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of non-fatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults.

  • As a result of a fall, more than 2.8 million injuries are treated in emergency departments annually. This includes over 800,000 hospitalizations and more than 27,000 deaths.

  • Falls are expensive. In 2015, the total cost of fall injuries was $50 billion. Medicare and Medicaid paid for 75 percent of these costs.

  • One of the serious injuries from a fall in later life is a broken hip. More than 95 percent are caused by falling. And women experience three-quarters of all hip fractures. Recovery can be difficult with many no longer able to live independently.

  • The outdoors poses several risks: uneven sidewalks, streets surface and curbs; parking lots and short concrete blocks placed at the end of parking spaces.

Regarding curbs – here’s a personal story. I was running in a neighborhood where all curbs are sloped to accommodate wheelchairs and other assistive devices. One curb in my neighborhood is painted white which means no stopping, standing or parking for any purpose other than loading or unloading passengers. It is a full curb about two inches above the street. As I was approaching the curb, I glanced to my right at an enormous truck with huge wheels. In that split second, my foot hit the base of the curb and I went flying. When

I knew I only had a scraped knee, I realized how this small distraction could have manifested itself into a serious injury, limiting my mobility and perhaps even more.

I share this story because of its impact on me. I now watch carefully at the shape of curbs and don’t assume all are sloped. Sometimes an “almost accident” gives us a second chance to become more vigilant.

Here are some tips when you are walking the neighborhood, going on an exotic trip or visiting the grandchildren in another city:

  • When stepping on stairs, always use a handrail.

  • Try to stay on level ground and watch for holes and uneven areas.

  • If sidewalks are slippery from rain, snow or ice, walk on the grass if you can.

  • Make sure you have the correct eye ware including sunglasses. Use caution with bifocals which can distort potential hazards.

  • Check the height of curbs before stepping up or down.

  • Wear shoes that are not slippery.

  • Avoid walking on a bike path; instead use the pedestrian walkway.

  • Watch for those zooming on scooters and skateboards.

  • Being functionally fit can help prevent falls. Such fitness relates to our strength, flexibility, endurance and sense of balance. And balance is a key in fall prevention. Practicing tai chi and yoga helps.

  • Consider enrolling in a fitness class that may be offered by your local hospital, Senior Center or as part of adult education programs. Here are just two examples in the South Bay: Contact Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Advantage program for classes on balance and overall fitness at (310) 517-4666 and Beach Cities Health District at (310) 374-3426.

S.D., Thank you for the important question. Enjoy the outdoors and stay safe.

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