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August 18 2018

Fall prevention can positively impact senior health and independence

By Jennifer Kolesar-Springhetti, DPT

Falling is a serious matter. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among adults 65 and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Every year, nearly one-third of seniors fall and three million are treated for fall-related injuries in emergency departments. One in five falls results in a serious injury such as head trauma or fractures.

Common causes for falling include:

  • Balance or gait problems

  • Ill-fitting or unstable footwear

  • Inadequate lighting or glare

  • Medical conditions such as Parkinson’s, arthritis, diabetes, dizziness or numbness

  • Medications with “drive with caution” labels, including those for pain, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and other conditions

  • Muscle weakness

  • Obstacles and other hazards

  • Vision or eyewear problems

  • Use of multiple medications

While it may be hard to believe, fear of falling is also a common cause of falls. When older adults fear falls, they often limit their activity. This can lead to loss of strength and mobility, making them more vulnerable to falls. Changes in posture, stiffness, speed and gait can impact balance, and also result in a fall.

Falls can be prevented

Informing a health care provider about a fall or a fear of falling is the most effective way to work to prevent future falls. Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fewer than half of the Medicare beneficiaries who have fallen in the previous year tell a provider.

Individuals should talk to their doctor about any falls they have had as well as any concerns or questions related to balance, strength, mobility, agility, medications, vision or other factors that may be associated with falls.

Physicians strive to keep patients as healthy and independent as possible, for as long as possible. They are trained to ask patients about falling, assess gait and balance, review medications for side effects or interactions, provide referrals to medical specialists, and recommend interventions such as physical therapy or exercise programs like aquatics or tai chi.

Regular exercise is key to maintaining strength and balance. Both are needed to prevent weakness and instability, which are the primary causes of falls and can lead to a loss of independence.

Community-based classes and home-safety programs are also recommended. Stepping On is a seven-week workshop that provides practical information about the role of bone health, community safety, exercise, footwear, home hazards, medication, sleep and vision in fall prevention.

According to the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, Stepping On participants typically experience a 31 percent reduction in falls.

ProHealth Care offers Stepping On throughout the year at various locations at no charge. Anyone can register at ProHealthCare.org/Classes or by calling 262-928-2745.

Stay safe, indoors and out

In the home, falls can be prevented by:

  • Clearing pathways and steps of obstacles

  • Increasing lighting and use of nightlights

  • Installing grab bars next to the bathtub and toilet

  • Placing non-slip mats in the tub and shower

  • Storing items in easy reach

  • Taping down or removing throw rugs

  • Using handrails alongside steps and stairs

  • Wearing well-fitting, supportive shoes

When walking in the community, people can prevent falls by surveying the area ahead for any slick or rough spots, steps, curbs, bumps, holes or obstacles. Talking on the phone while walking, or being distracted, in a rush or anxious can also lead to falls and accidents.

Falling is costly to one’s physical, emotional and financial health and well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average hospital cost for fall-related care is $30,000. Hip fractures are of particular concern, with more than 300,000 seniors facing hospitalization each year because of broken hips from falls. A hip fracture can seriously impair quality of life, create stress and pain, and even lead to a shorter life.

As common – and frightening – as falls can be, there is no single fall prevention plan that works for everyone. It’s important to eliminate the risk of falling by talking with your doctor and staying as active and agile as possible.

Jennifer Kolesar-Springhetti, DPT, is a licensed physical therapist with ProHealth Care’s Rehabilitation Services. She is a Stepping On falls prevention facilitator and a certified exercise expert for aging adults. She also is certified by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties in geriatric care.  She provides specialized rehabilitation services to patients who have geriatric, neurologic, vestibular and complex medical conditions.

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For more than a century, ProHealth Care has been the health care leader in Waukesha County and surrounding areas, providing outstanding care across a full spectrum of services. The people of ProHealth Care strive to continuously improve the health and well-being of the community by combining skill, compassion and innovation. The ProHealth family includes ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Rehabilitation Hospital of Wisconsin, ProHealth Medical Group, the UW Cancer Center at ProHealth Care, Moreland Surgery Center, ProHealth AngelsGrace Hospice, ProHealth Home Care, ProHealth West Wood Health & Fitness Center and ProHealth Regency Senior Communities. Learn more at ProHealthCare.org.