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 Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Every year, one in four seniors falls and 3 million people are treated for fall-related injuries in emergency departments. One in five falls results in a serious injury such as head trauma or fractures.
Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of deaths from senior falls in the nation. Fall deaths for people age 65 and older in Wisconsin increased more than 19% from 2016 to 2019, double the national increase for the same period.
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
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 CDC 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.
The comprehensive evidence-based Stepping On program regularly offered by ProHealth Care is designed to help seniors prevent falls and injuries. It's free and anyone can register at ProHealthCare.org/Classes.
A new CDC public awareness campaign called Still Going Strong provides educational materials geared toward stopping elderly accidents, deaths and injuries due to falls. The National Council on Aging also provides research, resources, tools and videos at NCOA.org for people to learn more about falls and how to prevent falling, check their risk of falling, and test their falls knowledge.
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 CDC, 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 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. For more information about rehabilitation services, visit ProHealthCare.org/Rehabilitation.