It’s a fact of life: As our age increases, so does our risk of falling. According to the National Council on Aging, one in three adults age 64 and older falls each year in the US. In some cases, the injuries sustained are severe enough to require emergency care.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Walter Biffl, MD, medical director of trauma and acute care surgery at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla about when to seek medical care for a fall along with tips to stay on your feet.
Several factors may contribute to a higher risk of falling, including a declining sense of balance and loss of strength.
“As we get older, I think our minds sometimes outpace our bodies,” says Dr. BIffl. “And while we all want to stay active and should stay active, sometimes it puts us at risk for falling.”
Depending on where and how you fall, the damage can run the gamut from bumps and bruises to broken bones and brain injuries. Bones become more susceptible to breaking with age, especially if you have osteoporosis, which causes bones to become brittle and weak. Falls cause more than 95 percent of broken hips among seniors.
After a fall, seek emergency care if you have any significant pain, a bone deformity or swelling, any of which may indicate a broken bone. Rib fractures may cause difficulty breathing and increase pneumonia risk. Major cuts also should be checked, especially if the bleeding doesn’t stop right away.
If you hit your head, especially if you take any type of blood-thinning medications, Dr. Biffl recommends getting evaluated immediately. These include aspirin and medications to prevent blood clots and reduce stroke risk.
Even if you don’t need emergency care after a fall, call your physician to let them know what happened. They may want to do an exam as a precaution, or give you care instructions for home.
“Please don’t hesitate to come in for care because you are concerned about COVID-19,” says Dr. Biffl. “We make it very safe in the hospital and doctor’s offices. Everybody is wearing masks, patients are physically separated, and there’s a lot of attention paid to cleaning all the surfaces and making it safe.“
How can you reduce your fall risk? Start by talking to your primary care provider at your annual physical or next appointment. If you’ve had a fall in the last year or you’re concerned about falling, your provider will ask questions to assess your risk and offer suggestions to help you avoid a fall.
Making small adjustments to your daily routine may also lower your risk.
- Ensure you have a clear path where you walk through your house, free of cords, small area rugs and other potential obstacles. Tile and wood floors can be slippery, so wear shoes with good traction.
- Avoid flip-flops and open-toed shoes that may get caught on the floor and cause you to trip. Closed-toe shoes are less likely to trip you up.
- Always use the handrail on stairs, and place adhesive anti-slip treads on stairs and slick surfaces like the shower or bath floor to help prevent slipping.
- Install grab rails near the shower, bath and toilet to help you keep your balance, especially on slippery wet tile.
- If you use reading glasses, be sure to remove them when you’re walking. They can alter your perception and contribute to a fall.
- Check your medication side effects. Some drugs, such as those that control blood pressure, can cause you to feel lightheaded and affect your balance. If you notice anything like this, talk to your doctor about adjusting your dosage.
- Try to walk 20 to 30 minutes a day to keep your legs strong, and do exercises that focus on strength and balance, which are two keys to preventing a fall.
“Look online for exercises to help balance,” suggests Dr. Biffl. “There also are apps that show exercises for balance and different body areas that you want to focus on. Tai Chi is a good technique that many people use.”