By Isao Iwata, MD
Each year millions of seniors — those 65 and older — experience a fall.
In fact, more than 1 in 4 older adults falls each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A single unexpected fall can change your life, which is why it is important for older adults to take the time to get a medical evaluation to determine their fall risk and to take steps to protect against falls and prevent injuries.
Are You at Risk?
A sudden misstep can happen to anyone, but older people, individuals with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or those taking certain medications are more at risk for falls.
Most falls are caused by a combination of risk factors. The more risk factors a person has, the greater their chances of falling.
The factors that can put you at risk for falling include:
- Taking high risk medications such as tranquilizers, sedatives, or antidepressants. Even some over-the-counter medicines can affect balance and how steady you are on your feet.
- Low vitamin D level (that is, not enough vitamin D in your system).
- Difficulties with walking and balance.
- Vision problems.
- Foot pain or poor footwear.
- Home hazards or dangers.
According to the CDC, 1 out of 5 falls causes a serious injury that can make it difficult for a person to get around, perform everyday activities, or live on their own.
These injuries can include broken bones, like wrist, arm, ankle, and hip fractures or head injuries. Head injuries can be serious, especially if you are taking certain medicines like blood thinners.
Some older adults who fall can become afraid of falling, even if they’re not injured. This fear may cause a person to cut down on their everyday activities. When a person is less active, they become weaker, which also increases their chances of falling.
Take Steps to Prevent Falls
Falls are not a normal part of aging, and there are simple things you can do to keep yourself from falling and becoming injured.
Be sure to tell your doctor if you have fallen since your last appointment and discuss any medications you take — prescription and over-the-counter — as well as any changes in your health. Your doctor will make recommendations to help reduce your risk of falling.
While exercise is the most effective method for decreasing the rate of falls in older adults, your doctor may also recommend an annual eye exam, or physical therapy to help improve your strength and balance.
Additionally, if there are problem areas in your home, it is best to address them right away:
- Secure or remove loose area rugs.
- Move furniture that can be tripping hazards, such as chairs and coffee tables, out of pathways.
- Relocate electrical cords away from chairs and foot traffic areas.
- Install handrails in bathrooms, including in the showers and tubs and near the toilets, and on both sides of stairways.
- Improve lighting in hallways, bedrooms, and bathrooms. Use a nightlight for added safety.
- Remove clutter, such as magazines, newspapers, and other items, from the floor.
- Wear proper footwear. Avoid heels, floppy slippers or shoes, and stocking feet.
- In the winter months, be sure to keep your driveway and sidewalks free from ice and snow. Be extra careful getting out of the car, walk slowly, and take smaller steps.
What to Do After a Fall
The National Institute on Aging offers the following guidance for what to do after a fall.
- Take several deep breaths to try to relax. Remain still on the floor or ground for a few moments. This will help you get over the shock of falling.
- Decide if you are hurt before getting up. Getting up too quickly or in the wrong way could make an injury worse.
- If you think you can get up safely without help, roll over onto your side. Rest again while your body and blood pressure adjust. If a sturdy chair is nearby, slowly get up on your hands and knees, and crawl to the chair.
- Put your hands on the chair seat and slide one foot forward so that it is flat on the floor. Keep the other leg bent so the knee is on the floor. From this kneeling position, slowly rise and turn your body to sit in the chair.
- If you are hurt or cannot get up on your own, ask someone for help or call 911. If you are alone, try to get into a comfortable position and wait for help to arrive.
- Carrying a mobile or portable phone with you as you move about your house could make it easier to call someone if you need assistance. An emergency response system, which lets you push a button on a special necklace or bracelet to call for help, is another option.
In addition, if you fall and hit your head, see your doctor right away to make sure you don’t have a brain injury.
And remember, as you age it’s important to take proactive steps to prevent falls and help protect your overall health.
Penn Medicine Princeton Health offers a variety of services — from home safety assessments to physical rehabilitation and more — to help older adults prevent and recover from a fall. Call 1-888-742-7496 for more information.
Isao Iwata, MD, is board certified in internal medicine and geriatric medicine. He is a primary care physician with Penn Medicine Princeton Medicine Physicians.