Last year, my 88-year-old mother took a nasty fall while on her morning walk. She broke fingers in both hands, had a severe laceration on her right palm, and to look at her face you would think she had been in a bar fight. When the hospital called to tell me she was fine and would soon be discharged, I was elated, but then the bombshell dropped. After discharge she would need 24-hour assistance to help her with housekeeping and “personal” care.
A chill ran up my spine as I considered the possibility that I may be the one called upon to care for my mother’s “personal” needs. Fear began to set in. Fortunately, my sister called me shortly afterward and said that she would be taking care of mom until she could care for herself. My wife could hear my sigh of relief.
This incident was a wake-up call for my wife and me. We are both senior citizens ourselves, and although we are in good health, we recognize that we are not as agile and do not heal as fast as when we were younger. It’s important for us to understand the problem of falls in the senior population, outcomes linked to falls, and what we can do to prevent falls.
How big is the problem?
• Generally, one in three adults over the age of 65 falls each year, but fewer than half of these people will talk to their healthcare providers about it. In Native American populations, this number is higher due to a variety of health and environmental conditions.
• Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries.
• Every year more than 2.5 million older adults will be treated in emergency departments and 650,000 will be hospitalized.
• The direct medical cost related to falls exceeds $30 billion per year.
What outcomes are linked to falls?
• Twenty to 30 percent of people who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries such as lacerations, hip fractures or head traumas. These injuries can make it hard to get around or live independently and increase the risk of early death.
• Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in older adults.
• Almost 50 percent of fatal falls among older adults are due to TBI.
• Most fractures among older adults are caused by falls. The most common are fractures of the spine, hip, forearm, leg, ankle, pelvis, upper arm and hand.
• Many people who fall, even if they are not injured, develop a fear of falling. This fear may cause them to limit their activity, which leads to reduced mobility, loss of physical fitness and an increase in their actual risk of falling.
• Men are more likely to die from a fall. After taking age into account, the fall death rate can be 40 percent higher for men than women.
• Fall-related fractures among older women are more than twice those for men. More than 95 percent of hip fractures are caused by falls, and the rate for women is twice that of men.
• People age 75 and older who fall are four times more likely than those age 65 to 74 to be admitted to a long-term-care facility for a year or longer.
How can older adults prevent falls?
Older adults can stay independent and reduce their risk of falling by doing the following:
• Exercise regularly. It is important that the exercises focus on increasing leg strength and improving balance. The exercises should become more challenging over time. Tai chi programs are especially good for senior adults.
• Ask their doctor or pharmacist to review their medications, both prescription and over the counter. This will identify medicines that may cause side effects or interactions such as dizziness or drowsiness.
• Have their eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year and update their eyeglasses to maximize their vision. If they wear bifocal glasses, consider buying a pair with single-vision distance lenses for activities such as walking outdoors.
• Make their homes safer by reducing tripping hazards, adding grab bars inside and outside the tub or shower and next to the toilet, adding railings on both sides of stairways, and improving the lighting in their homes.
To lower their hip fracture risk, older adults can:
• Get adequate calcium and vitamin D from food or supplements.
• Do weight-bearing exercises.
• Get screened, and if needed, treated for osteoporosis.
Falls are a preventable public health problem. For more information on how to fall-proof your homes, go to www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Falls/pubs.html. A little bit of prevention can go a long way.