Falls are a major concern as we age, but they are not inevitable. In fact, most falls can be prevented with some simple precautions.
Nevertheless, misconceptions or myths around the risks of falling persist and can lead to unwarranted fear and self-imposed limitations.
"You should not feel that you have to resign yourself to experiencing severe falls as you grow older. You have the ability to reduce your risk. It starts with understanding what can happen and taking preventive actions,” says Clark Bach, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Vista.
Scripps is actively committed to preventing injuries, including fall prevention, through community planning, education and outreach. You can find fall prevention classes in our events and classes page.
The following are common myths about older adults and falls and the facts.
Falls are often mistakenly regarded as an inevitable part of aging. They are not, but falls are a serious concern for older adults.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for older adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Falls among adults 65 and older caused more than 36,000 deaths in 2020.
- Falls accounted for 3 million emergency room visits for older adults in 2020.
- One out of four older adult falls each year, but less than half tell their doctor.
So, it is true that the risk of falling increases as we age, due to physical changes and health conditions. However, not every older adult will fall.
“Falls are not a normal consequence of aging,” says Dr. Bach. “No matter what your health and physical abilities are, there are preventive steps you can take to significantly reduce your risk of falling.”
Contrary to widely held belief, age is not a prohibitive factor in maintaining or even regaining muscle strength and flexibility. Strength training can help older adults improve muscle strength and flexibility and help to prevent falls. Regular physical activity, like walking or stretching, can also promote overall mobility and balance.
“It’s never too late to start exercising,” says Dr. Bach. “No matter what your health and physical abilities are, older adults gain significantly by staying active.”
Consult your doctor to determine the best exercises and activities for you. Make sure to bring up any existing health conditions during the discussion.
Exercises good for leg strength include:
- Sit to stand from a chair
- Standing heel raises
Exercises good for improving balance include:
- Standing on one leg
- Side stepping
- Backwards walking
Start by doing each exercise five to 10 times. Take a short rest in between. Work up to doing each exercise 10 times, twice a day.
Many older adults take multiple medications, which can have side effects like dizziness or drowsiness. This can increase the likelihood of falls. Both older adults and family members should be aware of any potential side effects of medications.
“If you take multiple medications, ask about their interactions. Bring your medications, as well as any supplements you take, when you visit your doctor,” says Dr. Bach. "Adjustments may need to be made to the medications if necessary to ensure safety."
Limiting activity can increase the risks of falling. Regular physical activity is critical in maintaining strength, flexibility, and balance. Inactivity leads to muscle atrophy, reduced mobility and decreased overall health. Engage in age-appropriate exercises to stay healthy and reduce the risk of falls.
“Don’t let a fear of falling keep you from activities outside the home, such as walking, shopping or eating out,” says Dr. Bach.
More than half of all falls take place at home. There are many items in the home environment that can be a hazard and contribute to falls. A dark stairway, a rug or a heavy piece of furniture can cause you to fall.
To make your home safer, take out any loose rugs. Install handrails in stairways and hallways if necessary. Make sure dark areas have enough lighting.
“Instead of limiting social activities and staying home, it’s more beneficial to make homes safer and continue to engage in safe outside activities,” Dr. Bach says.
Other ways to make your home safer include:
- Place a chair in your bedroom so you can sit while getting dressed or putting shoes on.
- Buy a shower seat, grab bar and adjustable height handheld showerhead to make bathing easier.
- Keep items you use often at a height between your waist and shoulders. This way, you can access them without needing a stepstool or having to reach too far.
Regular vision checks are crucial, especially for older adults. Poor or deteriorating vision can affect balance and make it difficult to navigate surroundings, both contributing factors to falls. By getting your vision checked every year, you can ensure your eyesight is optimal and reduce your risk of falling.
Walking aids can enhance mobility and independence. They provide stability, reducing the risk of a fall. The key is to use them correctly. Physical therapists can provide training to ensure these aids are being used optimally and safely.