Independence is a gift that we treasure and guard ever-more fiercely with age. There are few things that threaten independence more for older Americans than falls. And there are few words more fearful for adult children than "Mom or Dad fell." Yet as our population ages, it's an all-too-common occurrence. The fact is, one in four Americans aged 65 and older suffers a fall each year, according to the CDC, accounting for nearly three million injuries treated annually in ERs across the country. Many of those falls lead to serious injuries such as broken bones and head injuries. And, as we know, the impact of falls goes far beyond the physical, with the potential to be devastating financially, emotionally and psychologically.
The good news is, falls are not an inevitable part of aging. With planning, open communication and a willingness to make a few lifestyle and environmental changes, the risk of falls can be dramatically reduced.
How falls happen
Walking and balance issues
For a variety of reasons, coordination, flexibility and balance weaken with age, making seniors more apt to stumble, bump into things and fall.
Fading eyesight and hearing
As eyes age, potential hazards and things in the way are harder to see. Plus, approximately one in three Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss. As these important senses diminish, our balance and perception suffer and propensity to fall increases.
Aging bones become more brittle and less dense, increasing the likelihood of a fall. Additionally, most older adults have at least one chronic condition such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, or others that can cause weakness or a cutback in activity, both of which increase the risk of falls.
Some medicines by themselves or through interacting with others can cause dizziness and balance issues.
Over half of all falls take place at home. Slippery floors, untethered rugs, bulky furniture, bathtubs and steps are among the many things in a home that can present a tripping hazard.
6 tips for preventing falls
Fall prevention is a team effort. Whether you’re concerned about your own risk of a fall, or about an aging friend or family member, communication and partnership are key. If you’re the caregiver, make it clear you respect independence and boundaries and only want to help. If you are worried for yourself, don’t be afraid to admit your concerns and enlist the support of your doctor, family members and friends. Bottom line, work together to build a fall prevention plan.
Talk to the doctor
A frank discussion with your primary care provider is an essential part of your fall prevention plan. You’ll want to discuss:
- Your fall risk and any previous falls
- ALL medications (prescription, OTC and supplements) to determine side effects or interactions that can create a fall risk
- Calcium and Vitamin D levels because you need sufficient amounts to keep bones strong
- An exercise program that’s appropriate for age and physical condition
Get regular vision and hearing check-ups
Make sure eyeglass prescriptions and hearing aid strength are current. Know the impact of your eyeglass style – tint-changing lenses can be an issue when walking from bright sunlight into a dark room causing you to stumble over something you may not see. Bifocals or progressive lenses can be problematic on the stairs as you look up and down.
Age-proof your home
- Lighting: Increase the lighting throughout the house and ensure it's close at hand for getting out of bed or a chair. Keep lights near the bottom and top of stairs
- Stairs: Make sure there are secure rails on stairs
- Clutter: Keep pathways clear of clutter so that even if walking in the dark, there's nothing to trip on
- Rugs: Use a slip-resistant backing to keep rugs in place, or even remove rugs from places where they may cause a trip
- Bathrooms: Use non-slip mats in the bath and shower, install grab bars in showers, tubs and near toilets and use a shower chair
- Reach: Store clothes, dishes and other things you need within easy reach
- Repairs: Fix any loose floorboards or carpet, or uneven steps
High heels, flip-flops, old bedroom slippers and shoes with slick bottoms can all lead to falls. Wear sturdy, non-skid shoes that fit, and try to avoid walking around in socks or stockings, especially on the stairs.
Curb the habits
Tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption can lead to bone density loss, which makes you more apt to fall. Doctors recommend limiting alcohol to one drink per day, but note that even a small amount of alcohol can affect balance and reflexes.
Whether a short walk in the neighborhood, a yoga class or a strength training program, staying active is key for continued mobility, says Nidal Boutros, MD, Internal Medicine Specialist at HCA Midwest Health. Just as important, he adds, is knowing our bodies and any limitations. Before starting any exercise program, ask your doctor for a referral for a physical therapist or personal trainer used to working with seniors. Together you can plan an exercise/activity regimen that’s right for you.
In general, Dr. Boutros says, try a combination of activities that improve strength, balance, endurance and flexibility:
- Strength and resistance training: Training with weights and stretchy bands is excellent for muscle strength.
- Light stretching: Keeping your muscles flexible helps you maintain good balance and posture. Stretching works best when your muscles are warm.
- Low-impact exercises: Pilates or yoga can help strengthen muscles, increase flexibility and help you build core strength to improve balance.
- Tai chi: This ancient Chinese program of slow and deliberate movements can help you improve muscle strength while increasing balance.
- Cardio and endurance exercises: Walking, stationary biking and swimming can all build strength and endurance.
Emergency care in Kansas City
If you or someone you love suffers a fall, HCA Midwest Health has you covered with 11 emergency room locations around the community. We offer the shortest ER wait times in the Kansas City area and our experienced staff is trained and prepared to deal with the complications of falls – minor or major.