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The rate of falls and the serious injuries and deaths from them has continued to increase over the last decade for elderly Americans. The rise in deaths from falls each year since 2007 has been dramatic. In the most recently available numbers from the CDC in 2016, fall-related deaths for people 85-and-older increased by more than 79%. While that group experienced the largest increase, the numbers are up across the board for elderly Americans age 65-and-older. Men, in particular, are at risk with 33.7% higher likelihood of dying from a fall.
In truth, people of all ages can suffer from falls, older adults fall more often and have more severe consequences from those falls. Common fall risks are injuries such as head injuries or fractures to the shoulders, pelvis, hip, or spine. According to the CDC, falls are the most common form of injury, fatal or non-fatal, in adults aged 65 and older. The number of injuries and deaths makes sense when put in context with statistics from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons which shows more than one in four adults of this age suffering at least one fall each year. The costs are steep in terms of dollars and standard of living. Falls resulting in hip fractures drastically reduce a person’s lifespan, while falls lead many elderly people to move into assisted living. In 2015, U.S. healthcare costs from elderly Americans falling reached nearly $50 billion.
Identifying Risk Factors for Falls
One of the reasons falls are so dangerous is that many people don’t realize they’re at risk for falls until it’s too late. As you age it’s important to see your doctor regularly and ask if any of your current or past medical conditions increase your likelihood of falling so they can work with you to develop a fall prevention program. There are several key items to consider when it comes to assessing your risk of falling.
Age. Whether we like it or not, the risk of falling increases with age. Most of the more specific items listed below are impacted by age, such as strength, reaction time, and acuteness of the senses. As we decline physically, we also reduce our activity leading to lower levels of strength, coordination, balance, and bone density – all of which contribute to a greater risk of falling.
Medications. When you see your doctor be certain to have an up to date list of your most recent prescriptions, medications, and supplements. Your doctor can review the complete list and let you know if there are increased risks from their interaction, such as drowsiness from sedatives or complications from antidepressants.
Health and lifestyle choices. If you have a history of ear disorders, for example, this can impact your balance and create a greater risk of falling. Talk to your doctor about any health issues you have related to your stamina, muscle strength, dizziness, pain, numbness or any other issues that occur when you stand up or walk. Also, if your clothing or footwear have caused issues with your mobility in the past, ask about options that may allow for better stability or less restricted movement.
Specific medical conditions that may be risk factors for falling include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Hearing loss
- Vision impairment
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Urinary or bladder issues
- Bone cancer
- Hip issues that affect the gait or cause imbalance
Lifestyle choices can also have a major impact on the likelihood of falling. Increased alcohol consumption can greatly increase the risk of falls as it impacts a person’s balance, coordination, reflexes, and decision making. Drinking can also impact bone strength, which is something that is also impacted by smoking. A poor diet can also have consequences as it can accelerate medical conditions and reduce energy.
Household and environmental dangers. Unfortunately, some of the most common causes of falls are the most easily avoidable. Most falls occur at home during typical activities but are triggered by things like:
- Wet, slippery surfaces
- Clutter in walkways
- Pets getting underfoot
- Poor lighting
- Non-secured or loose rugs
A history of falls. While this may seem obvious, if you have fallen before write down the details of your falls or near falls. Note where it occurred, what time of day, what you feel caused the fall. With more details your doctor can work with you to develop a fall prevention strategy.
Identifying and Dealing with Fear of Falling
Negative experiences can condition people to an aversion from certain activities, and falling is no difference. This is certainly true for people as they age. After multiple falls, particularly after experiencing injuries, people may develop a crippling fear of falling that causes them to abandon physical activities. Of course, for patients who are already limited physically, abandoning physical activity can compound their problems making them weaker and accelerating their physical decline. If you find yourself shying away from physical activity to avoid falls, talk to your doctor to build a plan to rebuild your confidence and regain your prior levels of physical activity.