Fall related injuries in older adults and strategies for reducing them

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, June 3, 2015

It’s not something that any of us like to think about. We all know that it’s going to happen eventually, it’s just a matter of when and where. No matter how careful we are or how many precautions we take, sooner or later each and every one of us is going to trip, stumble, and fall to the ground. For most children and younger adults, or even middle-aged folks like myself, the consequences of a fall will typically result in no more than a scraped knee or elbow, or perhaps a bruised ego if our tumble is witnessed by others. For older adults, however, the results of a fall can be life changing, even deadly.

It’s no accident that, since 1989, advertisements centering on the phrase “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” have been extremely effective in the marketing of wireless medical alert systems, as it plays on the most primal of human emotions: the fear of falling.  This is not simply a clever marketing strategy, but an approach that is backed by solid statistical data. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every three adults aged 65 and older will fall at least one time each year.  Of those who fall, about 25% will suffer moderate to severe injuries, such as hip fractures or head traumas.  Falls account for 40% of nursing home admissions each year, and up to 25% of those who fracture their hip will have to stay in a nursing home for at least one year after their injury. The evidence is sobering. If a person wants to maintain their ability to live independently, minimizing one’s risk for falling is of vital importance.

Growing older within itself does not necessarily increase a person’s risk of fall or injury.  It is the physical changes that tend to occur as one ages, including decreased muscle mass and flexibility, impaired vision, as well as conditions affecting mobility, such as debilitating arthritis, that increase the likelihood of a fall. Combine these factors with the increased prevalence of osteoporosis, especially in white females, as well as side effects and interactions of certain, commonly prescribed medications, and the odds of a fall related injury are greatly increased.

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The good news is, most of these factors are modifiable, meaning that there are things that you can do to decrease your risk.  Having your eyes checked at least once a year, and updating eyeglasses as necessary, is an important first step. Asking your pharmacist or primary health-care provider to review your medications, both prescription and over the counter, in order to identify medicines that may cause dizziness or drowsiness. Getting screened, and treated if necessary, for osteoporosis.  Making your home safer by reducing tripping hazards and installing grab bars in areas where falls are most likely to occur, such as around toilets and tubs.

Perhaps the most important thing that you can do to prevent falls is to stay active, and exercise regularly. It is essential to focus on exercises that increase leg strength and flexibility, while improving balance and endurance. Try to exercise at least twice per week, preferably more often if possible. Be sure to start off slowly, making certain that the exercises get more challenging over time.  The specific exercises don’t have to be overly complicated.  Walking a few times per week would be a good starting point.  From here, you can consult a reputable health related resource, such as Medlineplus.gov, and enter a search for “exercises to help prevent falls” in order to obtain a detailed list of exercise options.

Considering the increased risk of falls and associated injuries, it is important that adults aged 65 and older make it a priority to implement a plan for fall-reduction as a part of their overall health care strategy. In addition, children and grandchildren, as well as friends and other family members, should be proactive in initiating a conversation with their loved ones, and be willing to be an active part of the process. This may involve something as simple as spending a Saturday morning installing grab bars in the bathroom, or even making plans to walk or exercise together on a regular basis. As always, it is important to speak with your primary health-care provider before starting any new exercise routine in order to ensure that you are doing the right type of exercises for your specific health related needs.

*Jeff Buntin is an Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner with Highland Community Hospital, specializing in the primary health care needs of those aged 16 and up. Jeff can be reached for appointment at 601-358-9765.