Have you ever fallen? You’re in good company.
One in four older adults age 65 and older falls each year; that’s about 36 million falls annually in the U.S., resulting in 32,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults.
Most falls result in some bruises but people do suffer broken bones. Each year, about 300,000 people are hospitalized for hip fractures, more than three-quarters of them women.
One of the main reasons children contact me about their aging parents is because of a fall. They become concerned frequent falls may indicate something serious, and they fear for their parents’ ability to live on their own. Studies have shown falls are commonly associated with subsequent admission to a nursing home.
Why do older people fall so often? Here are a few of the common causes.
1.) Decline in physical activity
This is the big reason. Many adults become less active as they get older, which only makes aging worse. Not getting even mild exercise regularly has been shown to reduce muscle mass and strength as well as bone mass. We also lose balance, coordination and flexibility unless we work to maintain them.
2.) Neurological changes
Our aging brains can disrupt the neural outputs that control our motor functions, causing problems with balance and reflexes. Changes in how a person walks — their gait — is an important indicator of possible cognitive impairment and can lead to more falls.
3.) Eyesight problems
Age-related eye problems make it difficult to detect fall hazards, such as steps, puddles, thresholds and sleeping dogs. Even a senior in good physical condition might fail to see or perceive an obstacle, resulting in a fall.
I’ve written before about polypharmacy, meaning that an individual is taking five or more medications. If those medications don’t interact well, they could cause dizziness or weakness.
5.) Still thinking we are 20 years younger than we really are.
I get it. You want to get out there with the grandkids, tossing a Frisbee, playing hopscotch and riding a bike. These are all fun activities, but remember you’re not as young as you used to be, and you need to take extra care not to fall while chasing a fly ball.
Why are falls so dangerous for seniors?
Older people are more likely to break bones in falls because of porous, fragile bones due to osteoporosis. Additionally, seniors are more likely to have complications from surgeries, as the sedation and trauma to the body make recovery more difficult. We just don’t bounce back like younger people can.
Even minor falls — like tripping over a curb or a throw rug — can be dangerous, especially if it involves head trauma.
The best way to treat falling is to avoid it in the first place. There are steps you can take (no pun intended) to keep yourself on your own two feet.
As implied earlier, keeping up physical activity is important not only to lessen the chance of falling but also for healthy aging. A lot of Medicare Advantage plans provide free gym memberships through Silver Sneakers, which offers exercise classes aimed at balance, strength and flexibility.
If your eyesight isn’t what it used to be, be sure to wear your glasses and, if indicated by conditions like age-related macular degeneration, low-vision devices. Just having more light can help with eyesight, too, so replace burned-out bulbs or even buy a couple of more lamps.
Wear secure, skidproof footwear. Not fashionable perhaps, but it will help you maintain stability. Watch where you’re walking, too — don’t be looking at your phone.
Are you taking five or more medications? Review them with your primary care provider or pharmacist about possible interactions or side effects. And when the label says “don’t drink alcohol while taking this medication,” there’s a reason.
Have your house or apartment evaluated for trip hazards and aging-in-place accessories, like grab bars or stair lifts. This is something I’ve done for a lot of my clients to help them stay in their homes.
Falling once in a while may seem like no big deal, but if you’re concerned about your loved one or yourself falling more frequently, it’s time to talk to your doctor before it causes permanent damage or even death.
• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (847) 612-6684.