Each year, more than 1.8 million people over age 65 are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with, among other things, stairs, bathtubs, furniture, and rugs/carpeting. Thousands of these injuries are related to falls. In fact, one in every three adults age 65 and older and almost half of people over the age of 80 falls at least once during a calendar year. Because falls can cause moderate to severe injuries, such as hip fractures and head traumas, and can even increase the risk of early death it is very important to identify the risk factors that can lead up to the fall.
So, exactly who is at risk of falling?
The easy answer is everyone. But there are specific reasons that can increase your risk. Below is a list of the most common ones:
- Being 80 years old or older
- Leg muscle weakness
- Difficulty with balance or walking
- Vision problems (cataracts, macular degeneration, wearing bifocals)
- Medical conditions that limit your ability to get around, such as Parkinson disease, stroke, or diabetes
- Conditions that cause confusion, such as dementia and Alzheimer disease
- Taking more than 4 medications at the same time or psychoactive medications (such as sedatives or antidepressants)
- Using a cane or other walking device
- Home hazards (throw rugs, pets underfoot)
- Low blood pressure
The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk. 20 to 30% of people who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries such as lacerations, hip fractures, or head traumas, usually occurring within the home. These injuries can make it hard to get around or live independently, and, in some cases, can even increase the risk of early death.
Once people have experienced a fall, even if they are not injured, they develop a fear of falling again. This fear may cause them to limit their activities, leading to reduced mobility and loss of physical fitness, which in turn increases their actual risk of falling again.
Fortunately, the good news is that, for the most part, falls can be largely prevented! For example, simple modifications to the interior of your house can cut your risk of falling by almost 50%!
How can you prevent falls?
By following these few simple steps and precautions, your risk of suffering from a fall will greatly be reduced, allowing you to maintain your independence.
Exercise regularly. Specific strengthening exercises that focus on leg and “core” muscles used in maintaining posture are extremely important. Balance training has also been shown to be an important part of fall prevention. Whether you decide to join that Tai Chi class or need more guidance from a trained professional, such as a physical therapist, the key is to keep moving!
Review your medications. Ask your primary care doctor or pharmacist to go over both your prescription and over-the counter medicines, especially if you receive prescription medications from different doctors. A simple check can prevent the possibility of medications interacting with each other and causing dizziness or drowsiness.
Have your eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year. You may be wearing the wrong glasses or have a condition like glaucoma that limits your vision.
Make your home safer. About 50% of all falls happen at home. By reducing tripping hazards (such as throw rugs), adding grab bars and railings in the bathroom, and improving the lighting in your home you are moving in the right direction to make your home safer and lower your chances of falling!
With the obvious benefits of avoiding a fall, why wouldn’t you do everything you can to prevent one? So, don’t wait any longer; pick up that throw rug, replace those old light bulbs and start exercising!
Acknowledgements: American Physical Therapy Association’s Move Forward, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Home Safety Council
Karen Krzywda, MSPT, OCS is a physical therapist and owner of Head to Toe Physical Therapy in Lewiston and Topsham. She has over 14 years of experience treating people in the outpatient setting. For more information call 725-4400.