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Conquering Fear of Falling

Stop the Drop

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

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 Center.

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 at it."

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 you:

  • Make sure you have adequate lighting.
  • Eliminate obstacles, such as throw rugs, clutter, and electrical cords.
  • 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 does it.)

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