As baby boomers approach retirement age, there are many concerns about age-related illnesses, both of physical and mental nature. Some of these are ultimately unavoidable and will catch up with us as we live longer but not necessarily healthier lives.
One health issue that has not been getting enough attention so far is older people’s propensity for falling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of three adults age 65 and older falls down at least once every year, suffering injuries from cuts and bruises to bone fractions and brain damage.
Falls Cause Serious Injuries
To Millions of Older Americans
In 2010 (the year of the latest statistics published by the CDC), nearly three million injuries from falling required emergency treatment or hospitalization. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among seniors. Even those who don’t get seriously hurt tend to develop a lasting fear of falling, causing them to limit their activities and social interactions, which, in turn, reduces their mobility further.
At the highest risk are people who have problems with walking and balance, but also those who suffer from debilitating health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, impaired vision or nerve damage. Adverse reactions to certain medications may also play a role, according to the American Academy of Neurology (AAN).
Our ability to stay safely on our feet depends on three sensory areas: The vestibular system, the proprioceptive system and the visual system. “With age and with certain neurologic conditions, one or more of these areas can become compromised,” said Dr. David J. Thurman, a neurologist at the CDC and author of guidelines on recognizing fall risks issued by the AAN. “People can often compensate when one of them is damaged. But when two or more are impaired, they can be at a greatly increased risk of falling,” he added.
The consequences of falling can be dire. Older women suffer bone fractures from falling at twice the rate of older men, but more men die in the aftermath. Most common are fractured hips followed by spine, forearms, legs, ankles, pelvis, shoulders, upper arms and hands.
One in four seniors who lived independently before a hip fracture needs a minimum of one year assistance at home or in a nursing facility. Complications following fall injuries, such as pneumonia or blood clots, are sometimes fatal, according to a report by the Harvard Medical School.
Guidelines for fall prevention by the AAN recommend that fall-prone individuals de-clutter their homes as much as possible. Paths between bedrooms and bathrooms should be kept free of obstacles one can trip over. All rooms and hallways should be well illuminated and nightlights should be installed and kept in good working condition. Rugs and floor mats, especially in bathrooms, should be slip-proof. Chairs should be steady and equipped with armrests. If needed, extra railings should be installed around the home. Furniture and items with sharp edges should be removed or placed in safer areas.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) advises everyone but especially older adults to take up exercises that enhance balance. Among these are simple everyday activities like walking, running, climbing stairs, bicycling, etc. Resistance training builds muscle strength. Many sports, including low-impact ones like hiking, swimming or playing golf, can help maintain lower body muscles. Yoga, tai chi and pilates improve posture, an important component of good balance and flexibility. Whatever you choose, it is most important to do it regularly and consistently.