Exercise programs to improve strength and balance, like tai chi, can help to reduce fall risk in older adults.
Today’s post is written by Patrick Dempsey, project coordinator for the STRIDE study, which is evaluating the effectiveness of evidence-based strategies to reduce serious fall-related injuries. Dr. Shalender Bhasin, Director of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Center for Clinical Investigation and Director of the BWH Research Program in Men’s Health: Aging and Metabolism, is a Principal Investigator for the national STRIDE study, and Patricia Dykes, RN, PhD, MA, Research Program Director of the Center for Patient Safety, Research, and Practice, is the Partners HealthCare site Principal Investigator.
Falls injuries are the leading cause of death in adults aged 65 and older. About one third of older adults fall each year, and those who fall are likely to fall again. According to the U.S. government, each year 2.5 million older people are treated for falls in emergency departments and over 700,000 are hospitalized. The costs of fall-related medical care amounts to $34 billion annually.
According to the latest U.S. Census, the population of older adults is expected to double to 83.7 million by 2050. Therefore, the number of people at risk for falls is growing. The good news is that most falls are preventable.
Eight risk factors commonly lead to falls. Older adults should review the fall risk factors with their primary care provider. Together, you and your doctor can identify your fall risk factors and use the resources provided here to develop a personalized fall prevention plan.
Review medications with your doctor or pharmacist.
Certain medications have side effects that can increase the risk of falls, such as dizziness or drowsiness. These medications include over-the counter antihistamines (used for allergies and sleep), prescription benzodiazepines (used to treat anxiety), and pain medications. Review your medications with your doctor or pharmacist. Ask whether doses or a combination of medicines can be changed to decrease side effects and the risk of falls.
Seek treatment for low blood pressure.
Older adults are at greater risk for sudden drops in their blood pressure when standing up from a sitting or lying down position. This condition, known as orthostatic hypotension, can cause dizziness or lightheadedness. If you experience these symptoms, speak with your doctor. Medications, dehydration, or other treatable medical conditions may need to be addressed.
Schedule regular eye exams.
Aging causes changes in vision that increase fall risk. Cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration are examples. Regular eye exams can reduce your fall risk by treating these conditions and providing corrective glasses when needed.
Don’t neglect foot problems.
Foot problems, including bunions, toe deformities, pain, and altered sensation contribute to falls. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or circulation problems, put people at an increased risk of foot problems. A visit to a foot doctor to identify and treat medical conditions or provide routine foot and nail care will help to reduce fall risk. Wearing unsafe footwear, like high heels or backless shoes and slippers, also could lead to falls.
Get a healthy dose of vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency is common in older adults in the New England area, due to decreased sunlight during winter months. Small amounts of daily sunlight help the body to produce vitamin D. Low vitamin D levels can lead to decreased bone and muscle strength, which cause problems with walking and balance. Vitamin D also helps our body to absorb calcium, which can strengthen our bones. Ask your doctor if you are getting the right amount of vitamin D or if a supplement is necessary.
Strengthen your bones to avoid an injury if you do fall.
Osteoporosis causes bones to weaken and become brittle. As a result, bones can break more easily if you do fall. The risk of osteoporosis grows as we get older. You can reduce your risk of osteoporosis by making sure that you get enough calcium in your diet to help strengthen your bones. Check with your doctor to see if you are getting enough calcium or if a supplement is needed.
Identify and eliminate home health hazards.
There are many common hazards both in and outside the home. Examples include stairs without sturdy banisters, inadequate lighting, throw rugs, and uneven or slippery floors. The majority of falls at home occur in the bathroom. Grab bars in the shower can help reduce this risk. The Check for Safety home safety checklist is a valuable tool that can help you identify fall hazards in the home and provides recommendations for improving safety in your home.
Take steps to improve balance and strength.
As we age, we experience changes in our strength, balance, and walking. Taking part in an exercise program that focuses on these changes can lower your fall risk. Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance (Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance) is an effective exercise program that improves strength, walking, and balance. There are many affordable and effective fall prevention programs that teach strategies to reduce the fear of falling and increase activity levels. Programs like Matter of Balance enable older adults to remain independent by reducing the risk of falls and fall-related injuries.