Preventing Falls and Improving Quality of Life in Older Adults
Every 11 seconds, an American senior visits an emergency room with a fall-related injury. Fortunately, falling doesn’t need to be an inevitable part of aging. There are several proven ways to prevent falls and the potential consequences.
We’ve all taken a tumble before. Most of the time, the worst injury we sustain is a bruised ego. But as our years progress, falling can become less of an embarrassment and more of an emergency situation.
Older Adults and Fall Risk
Every year, roughly 1 in every 4 older adults experiences a fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Falls are not only the leading cause of nonfatal injuries in adults aged 65 and over, they are also the number-one cause of accident-related deaths in the same age group.
Falls are also the primary reason that seniors are one of the highest-risk groups for concussions and traumatic brain injuries, which can lead to both physical and cognitive impairments. Research has shown that even a single head injury can lead to dementia later in life, and the risk is 4.5 times greater for who have experienced a severe TBI.
Even for those who fully recover from a spill, the fear of a trip to the hospital can change their activity levels. They may spend more time at home, isolating themselves and limiting social interactions. Unfortunately, becoming less active can increase the odds of a fall-related injury, depression and even cognitive decline.
Why do Seniors Fall More?
Our hearing and balance systems are closely connected and are particularly sensitive to reduced blood flow and other damage. Thus, poor balance can be caused by age-related conditions like cardiovascular disease, low blood pressure, neurological disorders, and diabetes. Similarly, vision problems, also common as we age, can negatively affect our perception as well as ability to see obstacles and lead to falls.
The average older adult takes four or more prescription drugs to manage age-related diseases. Many medications can contribute to falling because they can make us less alert or slow our reaction times. These include anti-anxiety medications, allergy and sleep aids, tricyclic antidepressants, and prescription sleep drugs like Ambien.
Safety hazards like slippery floors, loose rugs and poor lighting in our homes can also lead to falls. In fact, the National Council on Aging notes that 60% of falls happen in the home. Home-based accidents can be particularly dangerous for those who live alone.
However, the most significant fall risk comes from physiological factors. The loss of muscle mass as we age, called sarcopenia, can cause weakness, fatigue and difficulty standing and walking. Sarcopenia not only makes falls more likely; the loss of muscle mass also makes it more difficult for us to bounce back after a spill.
Fall Prevention for Seniors
Although there are numerous ways to reduce the risk of senior falls, we’d like to address four that can easily be implemented.
The first step is to review your medications with a doctor or pharmacist. Knowing the potential side effects of the drugs you take can help you evaluate your fall risk. While speaking with your doctor, express any concerns you may have about your balance.
Second, have your vision and hearing checked annually. The fall risk for older adults with hearing loss is 2.4 times higher than those with normal hearing, however consistent hearing aid use can lower your risk. Vision is also vital, as people with low vision have double the risk of falling. Update your glasses prescription to ensure you can see clearly. Remember that it can take several days to adjust to new glasses and be especially cautious during this period.
Third, check your home for potential hazards. Fasten loose rugs, keep floors clear of cords and debris, and purchase a pair of slippers with good traction. Make sure your lighting is adequate so potential barriers are clearly visible, and make sure light switches are easily accessible. Also, there’s no shame in adding railings to your front step or installing grab bars in your shower.
Finally, regular exercise is vital to strengthen our bodies and prevent falls. Balance exercises and strength or resistance training should be part of every older adult’s fitness routine. Between the ages of 50 and 70, our muscle mass decreases by about 8% per decade. A strength or resistance workout three times a week can significantly improve endurance, power and bone density, while also reducing frailty, chronic diseases and fall risk.
Falls can happen to anyone, but as we grow older, they can become both more frequent and more dangerous. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to reduce our risk and live more confidently and independently.