Who hasn't slipped on a wet floor or tripped up a flight of stairs? Taking a spill may seem like a minor issue. But as we grow older, a simple fall can be devastating. According to the National Institute on Aging, more than one in three Americans over age 65 report falling each year.
"Falls in seniors can result in serious trauma, including other injuries and hip fractures," says Mirza Beg, M.D., a geriatric specialist at Henry Ford Health. "Up to half of people who suffer a hip fracture after a fall never return home. They have to receive care in a nursing home, and that has a huge impact on a person's quality of life."
Seniors At Risk Of Falls
When you fall as a child, you bounce back up. When you're in your 20s, it takes a little longer to recover. By the time you reach your 40s and 50s, you may have to wait weeks to get back to baseline. Once you hit the golden years, a single fall can have catastrophic consequences.
To make matters more complicated, seniors are at increased risk of falling. As you age, your senses change. Your vision and hearing may not be as sharp, and your reflexes may not be as quick as they were when you were young. Plus, a variety of age-related health conditions can converge to make you feel less steady on your feet, including:
- Heart disease
- Muscle weakness
- Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's disease, stroke and neuropathy
- Cognitive impairment
Unfortunately, the medications doctors use to treat some of these conditions produce side effects that may make you feel dizzy, sleepy or off-balance. So it makes sense that the risk of falling, and suffering complications from a fall, increases with age.
"After a fall or a near-fall, some people become so afraid of falling they develop 'post-fall anxiety syndrome,' where fear keeps them from engaging in social activities or even going outdoors," Dr. Beg says. "Over time, that can lead to social isolation and muscle weakness." But there is some good news: Most falls are preventable.
Taking Steps To Prevent Falls
While you can't control the health-related factors that increase the risk of falling as you age, there are a number of things you can do to prevent falls from happening and improve your ability to recover if you do fall.
- Fall-proof your home. Most falls don't just happen. There's usually a trigger, or a precipitating factor in the external environment that leads to a fall. To fall-proof your home, remove boxes, wires, cords and clutter from hallways, walkways and stairs. Secure rugs with slip-free mats or tape, and repair loose flooring. Since the bathroom is a danger zone for falls, be sure to install nonslip mats in wet areas and use handrails when necessary.
- Get moving. While the fear of falling keeps many seniors homebound, it's important to stay physically active, particularly as you get older. Regular exercise, including strength training, stretching and cardiovascular activities, can help build muscle, prevent bone loss and improve balance. "Even gentle exercises such as walking, yoga and tai chi go a long way toward reducing the risk of falls," Dr. Beg says.
- Wear proper footwear. High heels, flip-flops, floppy slippers and (gasp) walking around in socks increase the odds that you'll stumble, slip and fall. Make sure to wear supportive, sturdy shoes and slippers, both with nonskid soles.
- Light up your environment. Install night lights in your bedroom, bathroom and hallways, place a lamp within easy reach and make sure to keep a flashlight handy during emergencies. You might even consider swapping traditional switches for the glow-in-the-dark variety.
- Take your time. Getting up too quickly can cause your blood pressure to dip and make you feel dizzy and lightheaded. Walking too quickly can also increase your odds of slipping. Don't be afraid to take your time and use assistive devices, such as canes and walkers, when you need them.
Partner With Your Doctor To Prevent Falls
The most effective fall prevention plans begin with a conversation with your primary care provider. Be sure to share your medication lists and ask whether your prescription medications could be increasing your risk of falls. And make it a point to talk to your doctor about any falls or near misses you've experienced.
"Usually, people have a couple of minor falls before they have a serious fall," Dr. Beg says. "If you lose your balance and nearly fall, that predisposes you to bigger falls down the line. So if you feel lightheaded or off-balance, talk to your doctor."
Your doctor may analyze your strength, balance and gait, and order tests to assess your bone density. Strong bones may not protect you from falling, but they could prevent a bone fracture, which can lead to disability or even death. Vitamin D is also essential for building and maintaining bone mass. Since a vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk of falls, talk to your doctor about testing your levels if you think you may fall short of your quota.
Still concerned about falling? Ask your doctor for a referral to an occupational therapist to help you implement fall prevention strategies at home. Some solutions are quick and easy. Others may be more involved and require professional assistance.
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Dr. Mirza Beg is a family and geriatric medicine doctor who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers - Detroit Northwest and Pierson Clinic.