If you can answer yes to any of the questions below, you may be at risk to sustain a fall:
- Have you fallen in the past year?
- Are you on 4 or more prescribed medications?
- Do you experience dizziness, light-headedness, or vertigo?
- Do you have difficulty standing up from a regular chair?
- Do you have difficulty turning your head and trunk to back a car down your driveway?
- Do you have joint pain or episodes of your legs “giving out”?
- Is your vision getting progressively worse?
As we age, we are more at risk to sustain a fall. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 adults ages 65 and older will sustain a fall. Many of these falls cause injuries such as broken bones, brain injury, cuts and lacerations, bruised ribs, and internal organ damage. Over $50 billion dollars is now spent annually in the United States to care for injuries associated with falls. It is estimated that the average hospital cost for an injury due to a fall is now over $30,000. It is of particular concern that many of the more serious injuries such as a hip fracture or concussion prevent people from returning to their homes to continue to live independently.
Many falls can be prevented by seeking regular medical care, performing home safety checks, exercising regularly, and practicing balance activities. Older adults should see their primary care physicians at least once annually to monitor biometrics (height, weight, Blood Pressure, pulse, cardiac function, blood labs), monitor medication usage, and perform recommended special tests such as screening for osteoporosis, breast cancer, colon cancer, and so forth.
Home safety checks should be performed twice annually to look for trip hazards, poor lighting, loose railings, uneven terrain, chairs that are too low, cluttered closets, and pathways that are not free to easily negotiate. Simple modifications such as raised toilets, grab bars, motion-sensitive night lights, hiking poles, medical alert pendants, motorized recliners, and railings on both sides of the stair can prevent falls.
Lastly, regular exercise and balance-specific training is an absolute necessity to prevent falls. It is never too late to address the effects of aging which contribute to increased fall risk. As we age, we tend to lose flexibility in our arms, legs, back, and neck. We also experience decreases/deficits in hearing, vision, strength, endurance, reflex response, sensation, heart function, and lung function. These can lead to changes in the way that we sit, stand, and walk; and may even require us to use an assistive device such as a walker or a cane. These changes ultimately affect our balance reactions —the ability of our bodies to adapt to the ground that we walk on, the things that we see/hear, and the forces that are applied to us—like carrying packages or being bumped into.
The old adage of “use it or lose it” definitely applies to having good balance. To “cultivate balance” and prevent falls, one must work daily to improve range of motion, strength, and endurance. These are the building blocks for functional activities such as balancing on one foot to get dressed, reaching up on tip-toes to get a package, or bending down to get something out of the freezer.
In order to get started, one should have a complete physical. For those whom are already active, there are many programs in our local towns that focus on flexibility and strength training, such as Chair Yoga, Tai Chi, water workouts, Zumba Gold, and walking groups. For those have dizziness, general weakness, loss of motion and stiffness, or loss of strength, a more structured program with a physical therapist would be appropriate.
It is never too late to get started with an exercise program. Investing time to improve your fitness and funds to make necessary changes to your home will go a long way in maintaining your independence and improving your quality of life.
Dr. Lori Schneider is a Physical Therapist and Regional Director for Access Physical Therapy and Wellness.