What if there was a way to reduce the risk of the one thing that is the most frequent cause of injury among older adults? More than one third of elderly adults fall every year, and that number is on the rise. A new study by the University of Michigan Health System found that the number of falls reported rose 8% from 1998 to 2010. While it’s true that there are now more elderly adults in the U.S. than there were in 1998, the increase in falls is not necessarily because of a change in demographics.
Lead author Christine Cigolle, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the departments of family medicine and internal medicine at the University of Michigan and a research scientist at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center (GRECC) noted the change but has not been able to identify the cause of the increase:
“We expected an increase because older adults are getting older and there are more 80 and 90 year old adults than before, but we were very surprised to find that the increase in falls was not due to the changing demography. We saw a higher number of falls across all age groups — not just the oldest -and that was unexpected.”
While a simple tumble for a middle-aged or younger person may result in a scrape or some minor aches and pains the next day, a fall in the elderly can be serious and even fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control:
- One out of five falls results in a serious injury (e.g., broken bone or a traumatic brain injury)
- More than 700,000 people are hospitalized annually for serious injury as a result of falling
- Fewer than half of elderly patients tell their doctor about a fall
- After the first fall, the chances of falling again doubles
- Falling sideways is the cause of more than 95% of all hip fractures
- The elderly account for most serious fall injuries, with 2.5 million people aged 65 or older being treated annually in emergency rooms for falls
Ironically, many elderly people become afraid of falling and begin to minimize their physical activity. This can lead to weakness and actually increase the chances of a serious fall. In addition to increasing physical activity, here are five ways to prevent falls in the elderly.
1. Get eyes checked regularly
This may seem like a simple thing to do, but an annual eye exam may be one of the first things to fall off the radar, especially for someone who has had no vision problems in the past. As with every other system in the body, aging eyes may feel more strain, and vision may begin to deteriorate over time. A regular annual eye exam, including dilation and testing for glaucoma, can ensure that vision is clear and crisp.
In another twist, though, getting a stronger prescription for contacts or eyeglasses may cause an increase in the risk of falls while the eyes adjust. A 2014 study by Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins found that increased magnification may make objects appear farther away or closer than they are. Peripheral vision may seem even more blurry while eyes adjust to the new prescription as well. The study recommends only gradually increasing prescription strength in older patients to allow time to adjust.
2. Clear out the clutter
Most falls occur in the home and can be directly related to clutter underfoot. This can come in the form of throw rugs, knickknacks or decorations, or worn carpet or other floor coverings. Keep the home safe by removing anything that might trip up or catch shuffling feet.
Outside, make sure that sidewalks, driveways, and stairs into the home are in good repair with no cracks or uneven areas.
3. Install handrails
Many falls could have been prevented if adequate handrails were present. This means handrails in the shower and tub area, on the stairs both inside and outside of the home, and in any other area where footing may be uneven or require a change in slope.
The principles of universal or inclusive design focus on making all environments safe and accessible for all ages. If you are retrofitting or building a residence from scratch, thinking about design for every stage of life can make it easier and safer to “age in place.” Focus on adding handrails and safety features that will last for a lifetime.
4. Talk to your doctor about the risk of a fall
An important risk factor for falling is any pre-existing medical conditions that can cause dizziness (e.g., vertigo or low blood pressure). Medications that make a person sleepy or have dizziness as a side effect can also increase the risk of falling. If you are concerned about your level of risk, or the risk to a loved one, talk to your doctor about preventative measures that you can take, such as taking medication at night.
If dizziness is a major side effect, your doctor may also be able to prescribe a different medication.
5. Exercise to improve balance
Walking and swimming are two popular exercises for the elderly because they are generally safe and low impact, but it is important to include exercise that focuses on building strength and balance. Yoga is a great way to work on stability and balance while increasing strength in the core support structures of the body. The slow and fluid movements of t’ai chi also improve balance and focus. Adding either one of these to a daily exercise routine can decrease the risk of falling in the elderly.
If you or a loved one are at increased risk of falling, talk to your doctor about more steps you can take to prevent a fall.