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UC Davis Medical Center

UC Davis Medical Center

Foresight, perseverance can help prevent deadly falls for older adults

Checkup on Health

senior couple walking
For older adults, getting regular weight-bearing exercise is important to help maintain and improve balance and strength. Weak legs increase the chance of falling, the leading cause of injury death for Americans over age 65.

When we’re children, the trauma from tripping on a rug or sprinkler head can be dispatched quickly with a hug, a few soothing words and a Band-Aid. Yet for our grandparents or great-grandparents at that time, a similar fall might be hazardous or even deadly.

Things as seemingly innocuous as bunched-up carpet, a rug without a slip guard, or a cord for a reading lamp or humidifier can cause injuries for our elders that are at best painful and, at worst, threats to long-term mobility or even life itself.   

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of injury death for Americans ages 65 years and older. Every year one in three adults ages 65 or older falls, and some 2 million are treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries (last year, more than 400 came to UC Davis Medical Center). An estimated 20 to 30 percent of people who fall suffer moderate-to-severe injuries such as lacerations, hip fractures or head traumas.

That's one reason UC Davis Health System’s Trauma Prevention Program and its Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation launched the free “Stepping On” program of community-based workshops to prevent and reduce falls. Attendees learn about how to improve balance and strength, how to modify their homes, and how to manage footwear, medications and sleep to reduce fall injuries.

The UC Davis program is one of many fall-prevention resources available to senior citizens and their loved ones and caretakers. Such programs often focus on these areas:

For more information about future Stepping On workshops through UC Davis Health System, contact the health system’s Trauma Prevention Program at 916-734-9798.

Home hazards

It’s important to take an honest look at your home environment with a new perspective, and identify trip and balance hazards that can be eliminated. Does a space between two pieces of furniture cause you to turn awkwardly as you pass by? Are rugs secured to the floor, and are seams, bumps and transitions in flooring adequately covered or adjusted? Is that pile of magazines going to be a problem, or the awkward reach to grab the cooking oil in the cabinet above the stove?

There are many other actions to consider, and helpful checklists are available on the internet. Physical improvements like handrails around showers or tubs and toilets, non-stick bathtub tape and brighter lights can also make a difference.

Medications

Side effects from medications or combinations of meds can contribute to falls. Many medications for heart disease, high blood pressure and other illnesses common in aging Americans can lead to dizziness or even fainting. Some, such as prostate drugs, can also affect bone strength.

It’s a good idea to have a physician or pharmacist review the entire list of medications you’re taking to help advise about side effects and interactions.

Eyesight

Many people develop a fear of falling again, and cut down on their physical activity. Unfortunately, this can reduce agility and strength and simply increase the risk of falling.

Don't forget to actively keep track of vision problems by getting an eye exam each year, and be aggressive about adjusting your prescription for glasses or contacts on a preventive basis.

Muscle strength

Getting regular weight-bearing exercise is important to help maintain and improve balance and strength. Weak legs increase the chance of falling. Stepping On and other classes and resources can offer simple home exercises that can help, as well as advice about posture.

Bone health

Vitamin D, sunlight and calcium are all important to maintaining bone health and strength and reducing chance of major injuries when falls due occur. Getting screened for osteoporosis is a good idea.

A closing note: Even if no injuries occur, one of the casualties from a fall is confidence.  Many people develop a fear of falling again, and cut down on their physical activity. Unfortunately, this can reduce agility and strength and simply increase the risk of falling. All the more reason to tweak your home and your lifestyle!

More resources: http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Falls/pubs.html