Successful Aging: Dangerous falls and how to avoid them
Q. I have several friends who have taken bad falls that resulted in a broken wrist, concussion and even a brain bleed. I am 81 and want to avoid ending up in the same situation. I know that aging in itself places me at risk. Can you share some key tips that will lessen the probability of a fall? Many thanks. S.M.
Falls are a big deal! They are the enemy of later life. Here are some facts that support your concern as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Aging:
One out of three people age 65 and over fall each year.
Falling once doubles your chances of falling again.
One out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or a head injury.
More than 95 percent of hip fractures are caused by falling, usually by falling sideways
Each year three million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries.
Over 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized because of a fall that often results in a head injury or hip fracture.
In 2015 the total medical costs for falls was over $50 billion. Medicare and Medicaid covered 75 percent of these costs.
Harvard’s Women’s Health Watch reminds us of age-related changes that can increase our risk of falling both for men and women. Let’s begin with our bodies. Each of the systems that keep us upright and balanced — including the brain and central nervous system, vision, and muscles—loses a small amount of function with age. And everything takes a little longer. The sensory information that enters our eyes and ears takes a little longer to travel to our brains for processing. With slower reaction times, we often can’t catch ourselves in time to prevent the fall. All of these changes can cause us to be off-balance.
Add to that ailments and medications to treat them. Some medications have side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness and confusion. Example: A friend of mine recently took a sleeping pill; got up in the middle of the night and fell on her face, resulting in gashes and broken teeth. Fortunately, she did not break any bones.
So how can we prepare our bodies to become risk-averse to falling?
Here are some fall prevention tips:
Have your vision and prescription glasses checked regularly. Get tested for cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration so these diseases can be treated before they affect your vision.
When visiting your doctor, review your medications and eliminate those you no longer need, particularly ones that affect your balance.
Wear shoes that fit well with low heels and sturdy soles.
Be aware of your posture; stand straight with your shoulders being even and your abdominal muscles pulled in.
Don’t wear socks walking on bare wood or tile floors.
Be mindful of where you walk and don’t walk while using your cell phone. The National Safety Council has linked the rise of pedestrian deaths specifically to phone usage.
When standing up from a seated or lying position, get up gradually to give your blood pressure a chance to adjust.
Get sufficient sleep.
Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Studies show that the rate of hip fractures increase in older adults who use alcohol.
Get enough Calcium and Vitamin D.
Then there is exercise. For the greatest benefit, we need a combination of several types: aerobic, balance, flexibility, gait and coordination training and resistance/strength training. Consider yoga to strengthen muscles and flexibility; walk, bicycle or climb stairs to strengthen lower body muscles; stretch muscles and joints to improve balance and tai chi to improve muscle strength and balance. Of course, check with your health care professional before starting any fitness program.
For classes and programs, contact local resources such as your hospital, Senior Citizen Center or adult education centers for programs specifically designed to increase balance. In the South Bay, Torrance Memorial Medical Center offers an evidence-based fall-prevention and balance-improvement classes through their physical therapy department designed for beginners to the advanced. Call (310) 325-9110.
Thank you S.M. for your important question. Next, we need to look at our environments and assess whether our living space is waiting for a fall to occur or if it supports our physical safety.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. For more information, visit HelenMDennis.com. Or follow her at facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.