Each year, National Safety Month spotlights ways to prevent accidents at work and in communities. Falls are fairly common, especially among Americans age 65 and older. More than 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized because of falls, and they make up 32% of all preventable nonfatal injuries.
While the chances of falling increase with age, there are prevention strategies. Dr. Chad Wilson, associate professor of surgery in the Division of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, and trauma director at Ben Taub Hospital, describes ways older adults can reduce the risk.
Q: Have falls increased as a cause of injury among older adults in the U.S.?
A: People aren’t falling more – we are just an older population. Baby boomers are living longer, and they are healthier than previous generations. As a healthier population, many of us are reaching an age that increases our frailty and risk for falling. You don’t become prone to ground-level falls that result in injury until you’re older.
Q: What conditions can make you more likely to fall?
A: Syncopal falls happen due to a loss of consciousness, and older adults are high-risk for diseases that lead to syncopal episodes. Mechanical falls occur as we age because of a decrease in our agility and ability to compensate when we lose balance. The most common ground-level fall injury we see with the elderly is a hip fracture. With age our bones become more brittle, our skin reacts to abrasions more readily and the time it takes to recover from a fall is longer. These are significant factors for the elderly.
Q: What are the side effects of a serious fall?
A: An elderly person falling could have a serious, even life-threatening, injury. If a person on blood thinners falls and hits their head, it can be a lethal event. Older individuals are already at risk for cognitive decline, and a head injury from a fall could speed up that condition. Breaking a rib in a ground-level fall could put them at risk for pneumonia or even death.
If you still need to be physically able to work, a serious fall could impact your ability to support yourself. If a fall requires support from family or an assisted living facility, that can have a financial impact as well. Also, the psychological and emotional impacts from a serious fall are significant. A fall can be the first time an elderly person realizes they are losing their independence, which can be discouraging.
Q: Is falling an unavoidable consequence of getting older?
A: It’s about staying healthy and making good choices. Your risk of falling will increase as you get older, and the risk of injury from a ground-level fall increases as your body becomes frail over time. But there are ways to lessen the risks.
Q: Are there fall-prevention strategies?
A: Definitely. Some simple ways to avoid mechanical falls include sensible footwear and living in a clutter-free home. A more sophisticated change would include exercises that improve agility and balance. Harris Health System offers a Find Your Balance: Tai Chi for Fall Prevention class that connects mind and muscle balance. Another level of prevention is tied to the iCamp research Dr. Bijan Najafi is leading at Baylor. He has developed bio-inspired sensor technology for shoes and clothing that can detect when a person is losing the ability to accelerate or compensate.
On syncopal falls, it’s about maintaining good health, diet, hydration and exercise, and taking steps to avoid cardiovascular disease. Fend off frailty through exercise and improve your bone health with calcium supplements or appropriate medications to prevent bone loss. Remember, there’s a difference between your actual age and your physical age. We can’t fight genetics, but lifestyle choices have a lot of influence on when we are physically “elderly.”
Learn more about Baylor Medicine Trauma and Acute Care
-By Bertie Taylor, senior writer in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine