Falls are a major concern as we age, but they are not inevitable. In fact, most falls can be prevented with some simple precautions.
According to the National Council on Aging, falls among Americans age 64 and older result in more than 2.8 million injuries treated in emergency rooms each year. Injuries sustained in falls also account for more than 800,000 hospitalizations and more than 27,000 deaths annually. One in three older adults — about 12 million — falls annually in the United States.
“You certainly shouldn’t feel that you have to resign yourself to experiencing severe falls as you grow older,” says Shelese Newmark, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Carlsbad. “You have the ability to reduce your risk.”
1. Falling is inevitable as we age
“Falls are not a normal consequence of aging,” says Dr. Newmark. “No matter what your health and physical abilities are, there are preventive steps you can take.”
To reduce your risk:
- Stay active and take part in a program that incorporates balance, strength training and flexibility exercises.
- Have your vision and hearing checked annually. Avoid wearing multifocal glasses when walking.
- Manage your medications and understand their side effects such as dizziness, impaired vision and drowsiness.
- Ask your doctor to perform a risk assessment for falls.
- Make sure your home is safe.
2. Muscle strength and flexibility can’t be regained
“It’s never too late to start exercising,” says Dr. Newmark. “No matter what your health and physical abilities are, older adults gain significantly by staying active.”
While we do lose muscle as we age, exercise can help restore strength and flexibility. This is your first line of defense against falls and fractures. Talk to your doctor about the exercises and activities that are best for you and be sure to discuss any existing health conditions.
The goal is to do at least 150 minutes, or two-and-a-half hours, of moderate-intense endurance activity each week, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Aim for activity at least three days a week and include the four types of exercise: aerobic (endurance), strength, flexibility and balance exercises.
Tai chi, an exercise that uses slow, flowing movements, is one type of exercise that can improve your balance and control — and your self-confidence.
3. Medication isn’t a factor in falls
Medications can make you dizzy or sleepy, so always talk to your doctor about possible side effects of a new prescription. If you take multiple medications, ask about their interactions. Bring your prescribed and over-the-counter medications, as well as any supplements you take, when you visit your doctor. Your pharmacist may also answer questions about side effects.
4. I won’t fall if I limit my physical activity
The opposite is actually true — the more sedentary you are, the higher the likelihood that you will fall. Your range of motion and strength benefit from remaining active.
“Don’t let a fear of falling keep you from activities outside the home, such as walking, shopping or eating out,” says Dr. Newmark.
5. Staying at home is the best way to avoid falls
According to the NIA, six out of 10 falls actually happen 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. You can make your home safer by removing loose rugs, adding handrails to stairs and hallways if needed and making sure there is adequate lighting in dark areas.
Always let your doctor know if you have fallen, almost fallen, or are fearful of falling.
“Healthy aging is entirely possible,” says Dr. Newmark. “Put your energy into what you can control, such as exercising, and let go of what you can’t.”