Feb. 18, 2002 -- Falling down isn't what it used to be.
Remember slipping and sliding as a kid? Afterward, you'd jump up, pretending
you weren't hurt. And a cast was good for autographs and bragging rights.
But even a minor fall can make older adults overly cautious.
Various surveys show that 40% to 73% of people over age 60 who have fallen fear
falling again, and half of those people restrict their activities as a result.
(The worry is greatest -- and more justified -- in frail older people.)
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"Some won't go on family outings or even leave home,"
says Edward Vandenberg, MD, geriatrician at the University of Nebraska Medical
It's estimated that one in every three people over age 65 will
experience a fall in any given year. Half of all falls cause only minor injury;
2% are fatal. Among seniors in nursing homes, 88% of falls are due to physical
or medical problems. For older people who live in the community, 59% of falls
are due to physical or medical conditions, and the rest result from accidents
or tripping over obstacles.
Stop the Drop Before It Stops You
Vandenberg would like to halt a cycle he sees all too often. It
starts with a fall, then inactivity, then weakness and finally greater risk for
falling and injury. So many of the injuries he sees are preventable that he's
entitled his public presentation on falling, "Old Age Isn't for
Sissies," and explains, "If you want to enjoy old age, you have to work
Limiting activity won't prevent falls, experts say.
Self-defense will. Here are some tips to help you come up with a plan to
prevent falls, for yourself or for an older person you know.
Reduce Environmental Risks
About 85% of falls occur at home. Many could be prevented if
Make sure you have adequate lighting.
Eliminate obstacles, such as throw rugs, clutter, and electrical
Install handrails on stairs and grab bars near toilets and bathtubs.
Have a home safety assessment. (Often these assessments are done after a
fall, but it's smart to be proactive. A doctor orders the assessment, which is
covered by Medicare, and an occupational therapist or visiting nurse actually
Take Charge of Your Physical Condition
Don't accept physical limitations as inevitable with older age.
Increase and manage your mobility by:
Correcting vision problems: Keep your eyeglass prescription updated with
regular eye exams, and get treatment for cataracts and glaucoma.
Using drugs cautiously: Alcohol, sedatives, and sleeping pills, and some
cold remedies and antidepressants, can impair your ability to react. Ask your
doctor whether your drugs or drug combinations have these side effects and what
you can do to minimize them.
Building strength: If your leg muscles are so weak you can't get up from a
chair without using your hands, you're at greater risk of falling. "Weight
training can improve strength at any age," says Michael Rogers, MD,
director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State
University in Kansas. He knows of two people in one retirement community who
regained sufficient strength and balance to put away their walkers.
Improving balance and gait: "You should be able to stand on one foot
for 10 seconds," says Rogers. Practice standing on one foot while working
at the sink or, if you feel confident enough, walking along a curb as though
it's a balance beam. Some balance problems, such as inner ear disorders,
require medical attention. But many can be improved by physical therapy, or
through activities such as tai chi or yoga.