One in three adults over the age of 65 fall every year. For an older person, a simple fall from ground level can be life changing and lead to disability and a loss of independence.
Falling can mean a fracture, or two, or three, followed by a stay in the hospital, followed by a nursing home stay, and perhaps arriving back home weaker than before the fall and more dependent on others for your daily needs.
Falls and their consequences have a $20 billion annual price tag in medical costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People over age 75 who fall are four to five times more likely to be admitted to a long term care facility for a year or longer.
Twenty to 30 percent of people who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries — bruises, hip fractures, head traumas, that cause prolonged loss of mobility that can preclude independent living, and can increase the risk of early death.
Hip fractures, in particular, have ominous consequences. One quarter of those who fracture a hip have to be confined to a nursing home for a year or more. One in five individuals with hip fracture will die within one year of their injury.
“Another unfortunate consequence of falling is that many of those who fall will actually lose confidence in their balance, and voluntarily limit their walking,” says Dr. Lawren Hicks, medical director of Senior Services for John Muir Health. “Their muscles weaken, and their lifestyle suffers even as their risk of falls increases.”
Your role in prevention encompasses a few simple but critical measures:
- Maintain a daily habit of exercise to keep your muscles strong. People fall because their muscles are too weak to recover their balance when they start tipping. Exercise also helps with maintaining coordination, agility, and balance.
- Review your medications with your doctor. For example, sleeping pills can sedate your brain through the next day and contribute to impaired balance. Blood pressure medications might be a little too strong, causing your pressure to drop when you stand up. Other medications such as antihistamines and pills for overactive bladder may have side effects, which can slow your muscle movements, make you feel lethargic, and dilate your pupils, impairing your vision.
- Make sure your glasses prescription is up-to-date. Check that all the rooms of your home are as bright as possible during the day and that your lighting is sufficient for walking safely at night, particularly if you have to get up after bedtime.
- Wear hard-leather-soled shoes anywhere you walk. These are actually less risky than running shoes. Avoid open-back shoes, high heels, or sandals.
- Make your home safer. Make sure the places where you walk are free of clutter. Remove slippery throw rugs, or put a non-skid pad under them. Have grab bars put in next to the tub and shower. Make sure all stairways are well lit and have handrails.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in calcium and vitamin D. Osteoporosis, a bone loss disease common in older people, increases a person’s likelihood of having a hip fracture.
Good sources of calcium include low-fat dairy products like milk or yogurt; green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, or mustard greens; and calcium-fortified orange juice.
Good sources of vitamin D include egg yolks, saltwater fish, liver, and milk with vitamin D. Your body also naturally produces vitamin D with sunshine, although not everyone can get enough of it this way.