The Downside of Falls

Preventing tripping, falling can be key to maintaining independence

Nurse helping a man who fell and hurt his arm.Falls may be funny on comedy shows, but they can be traumatic for older adults. Simply tripping on a rug or slipping on a wet floor can change an older person’s life in an instant — posing serious threats to his or her health and independence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three people over 65 experience at least one fall each year, and more than two-thirds of them are likely to fall again within six months.

Falls also are the leading cause of accidental death in seniors. And, as many as 30 percent of those who fall end up with debilitating hip, pelvic, or spine fractures that make it harder to get around and adversely affect self-confidence. Even those who don’t suffer serious injury can become fearful.

“The most obvious concern when an older adult falls or trips is injury,” says Stephanie Studenski, MD, MPH, director of the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at the University of Pittsburgh and associate director of research at the Aging Institute of UPMC Senior Services and the University of Pittsburgh. “But the fear of falling can cause people to restrict their activity and sacrifice their independence. In some cases, it can lead to social isolation,” she says.

Everyone is at risk for falls, but that risk increases with the changes that come with aging, plus other medical conditions such as arthritis, cataracts and glaucoma, and balance problems.

“Fortunately, there’s a lot people can do to prevent most risk factors,” says Dr. Studenski. “Taking care of your overall health, staying active, socializing with friends, and taking a few common-sense precautions can help you avoid falls and broken bones.”

To learn more about the Falls Clinic, located at UPMC Senior Care-Benedum Geriatric Center in Oakland, call 412-692-4200.

Three things you can do to prevent falls

Exercise! Exercises such as tai chi or other relaxation exercises that improve balance and coordination can help lower your chances of falling and make you feel stronger.

See your doctor regularly. Annual physical and eye examinations can uncover underlying medical problems that can lead to falls. See your doctor if you feel unstable or dizzy, possibly due to medications. Tell your doctor if you fall; a medical evaluation can help. Make your home safer. Seventy-five percent of all falls occur at home. To help make your home fall-proof:

  • Improve lighting. As you get older, you need brighter lights to see well. Use night lights in your bedroom, hall, and bathroom.
  • Remove small throw rugs. Tack down all carpets and area rugs so they are firmly fastened to the floor.
  • Remove things you can trip over. Clear books, clothes, and shoes from stairs and places you walk.  Keep cords and wires near walls.
  • Use handrails. Install grab bars near toilets, and both inside and outside your tub and shower. Always use the handrail when using the stairs.
  • Store items within easy reach. Don’t store things too high or too low. Avoid using stepladders or stepstools. Most of all, think before you reach.
  • Wear shoes with non-skid, non-friction soles. Avoid going barefoot or wearing only socks or loose-fitting slippers.

Leading the Work in Falls Prevention

Dr. Stephanie StudenskiDr. Stephanie Studenski received the 2010 National Award for Falls Prevention Research and will be honored as the grand champion at the third annual Celebrating Senior Champions benefit dinner and auction Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011.

For more information about the event, sponsored by UPMC Senior Services, the Aging Institute, and the Division of Geriatric Medicine of the University of Pittsburgh, call Peggy VanHorn, benevolent care advocate, at 412-622-9239.

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