Aging and falls: A guide to pitfalls and prevention

Date Published: 
August 8, 2014

By 2030, Delaware officials say, the state will have the ninth highest proportion of the population age 65 or older compared to the rest of the country. With aging, the risk of falling increases dramatically, and the results can be devastating.

Falls represent the single most typical cause of injuries for older adults. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reports that a third of people older than 65 fall once each year. That number is probably low because of the numbers of incidents that go unreported. Falls are also the leading cause of death from injuries among older adults and result in 87 percent of all fractures.

Once you have fallen, you are two to three times more likely to fall again. In fact, falls are the cause of 25 percent of hospital admissions and 40 percent of nursing home admissions. Even when a fall doesn’t cause injury, 47 percent of folks who fall can’t get up following a fall without some assistance. Sadly, when you’re unable to get up on your own, the time you spend waiting for someone to help you causes health problems, too. Muscle cells start to breakdown within 30 minutes to an hour after a fall, and dehydration and other complications can occur.

Fear of falling can be a serious problem, too. Many people will react to their own fall or the results of a friend or loved one’s fall by limiting their activities. That is a big mistake, because you become physically weaker and you wind up increasing the very risk factors that lead to a fall.

You can take steps to prevent a fall or help someone you care about but, as I often tell you, prevention starts with information. You need to know what causes falls, what injuries typically result and what steps you or an important person in your life can take to prevent them.

There are medical factors that increase the chances of falling. Medications that can cause confusion, dizziness or sleepiness can play a big role. So can visual problems and muscular, skeletal or joint-related impairments resulting from inflammatory or degenerative problems, such as back disorders, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, tendonitis and gout. Nervous system disorders and issues that impact proper balance and gait often lead to falls, as well.

Don’t ignore what it’s like where you live. Your surroundings can represent a fall threat, too. Scatter rugs, uneven or slippery flooring or a wet floor can cause a fall, as can something left lying on the floor. Poor lighting is another potential culprit.

When you do fall, the most likely injury is a fracture. Aside from arms and legs, wrists, hands, and ankles are all very vulnerable. Other typical fractures include the hip, the pelvis and spinal vertebrae.

I also don’t want to understate the problems bruises can cause, which include swelling, discomfort and limitations on range of motion. As we already discussed, further medical problems can result if you are unable to get up and have to wait for someone to arrive who can help you.

Of all these injuries, by the way, hip fractures can be the most dangerous. They are the leading cause of health complications and death after a fall.

So, what can you do to reduce the risk of a fall? It starts with common sense. Make sure there’s nothing lying around the floor that can cause you to trip and fall. If the flooring is wet, get it wiped up. Slippery flooring might need to be replaced. Don’t leave wires unsecured, and no scatter rugs.

In the rooms you regularly use, you want adequate lighting for your vision level. Consider grab bars in the bathroom — both in the shower and by the commode. You also need to be seeing your doctor to get treatment for any of your medical conditions, and if your medication is causing dizziness or sleepiness, discuss that with your doctor, too.

I saved the biggest prevention tip for last. Older adults generally need to improve their balance, strength, flexibility and mobility. You also have to be honest with yourself about your gait. Are you walking normally or are you favoring one side or scuffing along instead of lifting your feet?

You need to stay active. Obviously, I’m not talking about extremes here, but there are many, many ways to stay active without exhausting yourself. If you don’t know what’s right for your specific situation, consult a doctor or a physical therapist who will create a customized plan that can be implemented in a physical therapy center, where you will get supervision and guidance on properly implementing your plan. Ask your doctor to recommend a physical therapist that makes sense for your needs.

There are a number of senior centers, like those operated by Cheer, that offer physical fitness programs. Some states offer options, too. In Delaware, A Matter of Balance is a wonderful program. Limited class size offers personal attention. The State has master trainers leading the classes through a varied set of activities that deal with numerous factors, including fear of falling and how to prevent a fall.

To register or get more information, you can contact the coordinator in your area: New Castle County — Susan Fox, (302) 255-9695; Kent County — Daphne Strickland, (302) 734-1200; Sussex County — April Willey, (302) 856-5815.

Whatever you do, don’t be a victim. Be proactive. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, and that’s a whole lot easier than suffering a major injury. We’re living so much longer now. That’s a great gift, so use it wisely and preserve the quality of your lifestyle.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be-reached by calling (302) 537-7260.