10 Ways to Prevent Falls
Falls should never be considered a “normal” part of aging. Medical professionals agree: Most – if not all – falls can be prevented.
By Grace M. Humbles
Falling is scary and it can happen to anyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 1 in 3 older adults fall each year, but less than half talk to their health care providers about it.
Unlike the tumbles experienced in childhood, falls in older adulthood can be disabling or even deadly. Consider the following:
• One out of every five falls causes a serious injury. More than 700,000 Americans are hospitalized each year for a fall injury.
• At least 250,000 of these hospitalizations are for hip fractures. About half (53%) of the older adults who are discharged for fall-related hip fractures will experience another fall within six months. An estimated 1 in 5 hip fracture patients dies within a year of their injury.
•At least 36,525 of these hospitalizations are for traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Falls are the leading cause of TBI-related death in older adults.
Statistics like these can cause us to live in fear of falling, or to avoid activity because of the risk. But there is good news. Falling isn’t an inevitable result of aging. Read on for ten practical ways to prevent falls and strengthen your body.
1. Check your fear.
The fear of falling can be paralyzing – so much so that it can tempt us to scale back on physical activity. But this turns out to be a dangerous mistake. Rather than protecting us, inactivity actually increases our risk of falling. “Fear of falling can keep older adults from performing activities of daily living. But the more sedentary we are, the weaker we become and the more likely to fall,” says Jennifer Eaves, PA-C at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation.
2. Schedule a falls risk assessment.
Make an appointment with your doctor to discuss a prevention plan. Certain conditions may increase your risk, and your doctor can identify the best strategies to address them. “Falls don’t ‘just happen’ and people don’t fall because they get older. Often, more than one underlying cause or risk factor is involved,” says Dr. Amjad Munir, medical director at HealthSouth Chattanooga Rehabilitation Hospital. “Many falls are linked to a person’s physical condition or a medical condition like a chronic disease.”
3. Review your medicines.
After discussing your overall health with your doctor, consider walking through each medicine you take and any possible side effects.
Medicines for depression, sleep problems, and high blood pressure often cause falls. Stay alert to anything that could affect your balance – over-the-counter medications too. “You want to know anything that might cause dizziness or drowsiness,” says Eaves.
4. Get an annual eye exam.
As we grow older our retinas let in less light, which makes it harder to see obstacles in our way. Combine this with poor lighting and an outdated eyeglass prescription, and you have the perfect conditions for a fall. If you wear glasses, make regular appointments with your eye doctor to ensure you have the right correction. Your eye doctor can look for other issues that might endanger you, too, like poor depth perception, cataracts, and glaucoma.
5. Get an annual hearing assessment.
Our ears aren’t just for hearing – they are also critical to our balance. Inner ear dysfunction makes us up to 12 times more likely to fall, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins, and it’s common too, affecting as many as 35% of Americans aged 40 years or older. Monitor your inner-ear health with your doctor to safeguard the center of your balance.
6. Exercise for balance.
Regular exercise is an essential part of any falls prevention plan. “It improves balance, increases strength, and decreases the risk of falls,” says Eaves. Exercise also keeps your joints, tendons, and ligaments flexible. If you feel like you’ve lost all strength and flexibility, be encouraged: you can regain these with a little work. If you’re getting back into physical activity, start slow. It’s best to rebuild your strength and flexibility gradually.
7. Ask about physical therapy.
If you want to get back into shape and you’re not sure where to start, ask your doctor about physical therapy. A physical therapist can be a fantastic resource as you seek to build strength and safeguard balance. He or she can tailor your exercises to target your weaknesses. A physical therapist can also adapt exercises to your abilities so you can rebuild flexibility and strength at your own pace.
8. Improve your shoes.
The right footwear can provide the stability you need to avoid falls. Wear shoes with non-skid soles at all times – even around the house – and make sure they fit well. Before beginning an exercise regimen, invest in some non-skid sneakers.
9. Clear your home of obstacles.
“Although falls can happen anywhere, well over half happen at home and many are influenced by the person’s living environment,” says Dr. Munir. Take measures to remove any obstacles in your living areas. The National Council on Aging provides a fantastic checklist to guide you, with troublesome items like loose wires or cords, cluttered walkways, and throw rugs included as things you must avoid. You can download the resource for free at ncoa.org.
10. Look out for danger zones.
Pay special attention to the bathroom and the stairs, as these are the areas where falls occur most. Install railings on both sides of the stairs and place grab bars inside and outside of the tub, and next to the toilet. Use a sturdy plastic seat in the shower or tub and consider moving your bedroom to the first floor.