March 23, 2011

USA: Falls pose serious health risk for older adults

ST. LOUIS, Missouri / St. Louis Today / Life / March 23, 2011

By Dr. Beth Sjoblom

As people grow older, the tendency to fall increases, and the injuries resulting from falls tend to be more serious. Each year, one out of three adults 65 and older experiences a fall.

The mortality rate for falls increases dramatically with age, accounting for 70 percent of accidental deaths of adults 75 and older. Falls are the leading cause of death from an injury.

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As we grow older, physical changes in our bodies can make us more likely to fall. A decline in vision might cause older people to misjudge distances, such as steps. A hearing impairment may affect one's balance, increasing the risk of a fall.

Because the elderly react more slowly than the young, they may be unable to protect themselves from a stumble. Older people also tend to be stiffer and less coordinated, further increasing the risk of falling.

Additionally, older adults have more existing problems such as weakened bones, injured feet, chronic illness, dementia or side effects of medication, all of which can increase the risk of injury from falls.

There are precautions older adults can take to prevent physical changes from causing a fall:
• Have regular eye and hearing examinations.
• Exercise to improve strength, balance and muscle tone.
• Be aware of the side effects of medication.
• Use a walker or cane for support, if indicated.

Additionally, many falls can be prevented with simple modifications to the home:
• Place nonslip adhesive strips near sinks, bathtubs and toilets.
• Make sure floors are never overwaxed or overbuffed.
• Install low-pile carpets and rugs with nonskid backing.
• Remove throw rugs and secure carpet edges.
• Make sure high-risk areas, like stairways and porch steps, are well-lit.
• Install handrails on stairs and secure carpet or treads.
• Arrange kitchen shelves so they require little reaching.
• Eliminate chairs that are too low to sit in and get out of easily.
• Reduce clutter and remove cords and wires on the floor.
• Ensure that the telephone can be reached from the floor.

Broken hips are one of the most common and serious injuries resulting from a fall. More than 90 percent of hip fractures occur due to falls, with most occurring in persons over 70.

One out of two women will break a hip in their lifetime. The risk is lower for men, but still significant, as one out of four men will break a hip. Fractures from falling also commonly occur to the pelvis, ankles, legs, wrists, forearms and feet.

Injuries aside, falls often take a psychological toll on older adults. They may develop a fear of falling that causes them to limit their activities. This leads to reduced mobility and loss of physical fitness, which increases their actual risk of falling.

If you believe you or someone you love may be at risk for falling, a trip to your physician for a medical evaluation may be in order. Falls pose a serious health risk to the elderly and can lead to permanent disability. Prevention improves the odds of staying healthy — and on your feet.

Dr. Beth Sjoblom, an internal medicine specialist who is board certified in geriatrics, is a member of St. Anthony Physician Organisation
.Copyright 2011