You might be surprised to learn that falls are the leading cause of fatal as well as non-fatal injuries among older people. According to the , each year 1 in 4 Americans 65+ suffers a fall. Every 11 seconds, an older adult gets treated in an emergency room for a fall. Even worse, an older person dies from a fall every 19 minutes.
Given these statistics, fall awareness and prevention cannot be overemphasized. Here are the facts about falls. And some simple steps to prevent falls that you can take in your own life and make sure your parents know as well.
Physical consequences of falls can be serious
Falls result in several types of physical problems:
- Bruises, abrasions and lacerations of varying severity
- Fractures of the wrist, elbow, ankle or hip
- 95% of hip fractures are due to a fall
- People with osteoporosis have a higher risk of fracture
- Head injury
- Falls are the most common cause of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Especially serious if the person is taking blood thinners
Half of older adults who suffered a fall experience functional decline afterward. This can include loss of mobility, balance issues and other physical problems.
Hip fractures are particularly worrisome. Most of the 300,000 hip fractures that occur each year in the US happen to adults over 65. If you’re an older adult who breaks a hip, you’ll probably need to have surgery. You’ll also be at greater risk for blood clots in your lungs or legs, bedsores, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and loss of muscle mass.
All told, an older adult who falls and breaks a hip has a 27% greater chance of dying during the following year.
Falls lead to emotional problems, too
Once a person has fallen, her risk of falling again doubles. The fear of another fall can lead to anxiety about leaving home. Thus a person who’s suffered a fall may start to curtail her outings.
Perhaps without realizing it, she’ll start to decline invitations and limit her social activities. Needless to say, this loss of human contact can lead to depression and social isolation.
Social isolation, in turn, can result in further health problems.
Fall risk factors
According to information compiled by MedicineNet, the risk of falling correlates with both medical and environmental factors.
- Visual impairment (e.g., myopia or cataracts)
- Nervous system disorders (e.g., sciatica)
- Joint and muscle problems (e.g., arthritis)
- Difficulties in gait and balance
- Medications that cause dizziness, etc.
30% of fatal falls among people 65+ occur in public places. Dangers include:
- Uneven pavement or sidewalks
- High or broken street curbs
- Poor outdoor lighting
- Icy sidewalks or driveways
Only 10% of fatal falls occur in health institutions. But 60% occur at home. Hazards in the home include:
- Slippery surfaces or uneven flooring
- Poor lighting
- Tripping obstacles such as loose rugs, steps and pets
- Unstable furniture
- Excess clutter, objects left on steps
6 simple steps to prevent falls
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) leads the National Falls Prevention Resource Center. This central resource supports awareness and education about falls across the US. It promotes evidence-based falls prevention programs. And it organizes a National Falls Prevention Awareness Day on the first day of fall every September.
A centerpiece of NCOA communications is 6 Steps to Prevent a Fall.
1. Find a good balance and exercise program
You’re probably familiar with guidelines endorsed by the American Heart Association to get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 5 times per week. In addition to this, experts recommend that you engage in muscle-strengthening activity another 2 days per week.
You can incorporate balance exercises into your normal routine by doing things like standing on one foot while you wait in the grocery checkout line. (You’ll have your cart to grab onto if you become unstable.) The Mayo Clinic offers suggestions for simple balance exercises you can do at home.
I recently started learning Tai Chi to work on my balance. Many yoga poses also help you build balance and strength.
2. Talk to your health care provider
Less than half of elderly patients who’ve fallen will report it to their health care provider. And yet as stated above, falling even one time doubles your risk of falling again.
There may be important ways your doctor can help you reduce your risk of falls. For example, see the next two steps.
3. Regularly review your medications with your doctor or pharmacist
Work with your doctor to cut out or replace medications known to cause dizziness or sleepiness. Make sure your prescriptions are compatible with each other.
Older adults who’ve experienced some health issues can end up with a long list of prescriptions, not all of which they need to take on an ongoing basis. They may benefit greatly from deprescribing, or reducing their list to only those medicines they really need to take.
4. Get your vision and hearing checked annually and update your eyeglasses
Changes in vision affect your ability to see potential obstacles in your path or to see in low light. Hearing issues also affect your awareness of the hazards around you.
5. Keep your home safe
At a minimum, you should remove throw rugs and other tripping hazards, improve lighting and install grab bars in your home. Remember that 60% of fatal falls occur in the home.
6. Talk to your family members
Falls are not only an issue for the older adult. Health issues caused by a fall often have consequences for adult children and others, as well.
Enlist your family’s help in making your home safe, as well as in getting out to your regular activities and social commitments. You all will benefit.
Video summary: 6 steps to prevent falls
The NCOA has a cute animated video that summarizes these 6 steps to prevent falls.
Nobody plans to fall
Face it. None of us expects to have a life-changing fall. But some of us will fall at some point. So what should you do now?
You can start by helping your parents reduce clutter and modify their homes to keep them safe. But don’t ignore your own house. Even at midlife, it’s not too early to improve your lighting and toss out that throw rug you’re always catching your foot on.
Anyone can fall. But taking these simple steps to prevent falls puts you ahead of the curve. So pick one of them and start today.