Don't Get Caught Slipping! Preventing Falls for Our Elderly
Written by Angela Wunder PT, DPT
As we age, falling can cause so much more than pain or a scrape. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), “Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults.”1 When an elderly person falls, he or she could suffer a head injury, a pelvic fracture, or commonly a hip fracture. Along with these injuries come hospital time and sometimes surgery. This puts an individual at risk for picking up an infection or virus, and all of the bed rest and deconditioning can be detrimental and even lethal for an elderly man or woman. Another staggering statistic regarding falls: “Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.”
For these reasons it is very important that risk for falls are identified and addressed to avoid falling in the first place! So let’s identify some common causes of falling. Some may surprise you!
Things that Place you at Risk for Falling
1. Vision Problems - Do not let those eye doctor check-ups pass you by! Combined with other components of aging, even a slight visual problem can end in a dangerous fall
2. Medications - Regularly review medications with your physician. Feelings of dizziness/light-headedness, weakness and fatigue are a few of many common side effects from medications. A doctor can review these medications and either adjust dosage or provide you with the best instructions when taking the medications.
3. Muscle weakness/Balance Deficits - Did you know that most adults reach their maximum muscle mass around 40 years old and lose approximately 3-5% each decade form then if inactive? If you don’t use it you lose it, so you have to keep on moving and exercises. This is where physical therapy plays a vital role- a trained health professional that can safely guide and progress a balance and strengthening routine. Read further below for more information & tips.
4. Trip Hazards - This may seem obvious, but many of these trip hazards are common and not very obvious at all. A throw rug is a big tripping hazard. Pets can get caught underfoot. Low lighting, clutter, or a combination of both increase chances of falling.
5. Fear of Falling - This just sounds silly, but it is a big part of the problem. You are nervous about falling, you move less, and in turn become weaker. The sensory system in your joints diminishes, and then you are at a bigger disadvantage. If you are nervous about falling, address those fears! Make the necessary changes with the right health professionals.
Reducing Fall Risks - What Works?
A review of research regarding falls states that a multifactorial falls risk assessment program, as well as exercise, is effective at reducing falls.
2 This means addressing your vision and medication changes, making your home and surroundings safe, and building and maintaining strength and balance.
Tips for Effectively Improving Strength and Balance
Please see your doctor or physical therapist before embarking on your strengthening and balance mission. A doctor will determine your fitness for exercise and a physical therapist will actually evaluate your unique position and develop a tailored plan that is safe. With that said:
Balance exercises must be challenging! While this fact can invite much frustration into your exercise routine, it is important that you have a moderate-high challenge and that your balance exercises and balance exercises that involve dynamic movements such as stepping and reaching.
You must have a sufficient “dose” of exercise and balance activities. It is recommended that you perform these exercises 2 hours per week at minimum and to keep up some of these exercises consistently even once you build your strength and improve your balance.
Interventions aren’t just for those at high risk. Fall prevention exercise is beneficial for the general elderly population too! For a consultation to determine if physical therapy is appropriate, contact your physical therapist today!
References: 1. NCOA Fall Prevention Facts. https://www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/falls-prevention-facts/ 2. Chang et al. Interventions for the prevention of falls in older adults: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised clinical trials. BMJ 2004. 3. Sherrington et al. Exercise to prevent falls in older adults: an updated meta-analysis and best practice recommendations. NSW Public Health Bulletin June 2011.