Lowering the Risk of Falls by Seniors

by David S. Casey & Lynn R. Laufenberg

In July 2001, Katherine Graham, former president and CEO of The Washington Post, and author of the best selling memoir Personal History, fell at a colloquium in Sun Valley, Idaho, and died of her head injuries three days later. Ms. Graham was 84, and, sadly, one of 15,000 Americans annually who die from injuries sustained in falls.

Half of these victims are older than 65. In fact, falls are the number one cause of death for women over 75, for men over 80.

According to the National Safety Council, one-third of all elderly men and women will fall at least once a year. Of those who fracture a hip, one-fourth will die within a year. Off those who live, fewer than half will attain their former mobility, and many may not be able to return home or live independently.

The good news is that no age group benefits more from a well-balanced exercise program than seniors. Thanks to vast advances in general healthcare, dietary education, and preventive medicine, Americans of all ages are living longer, healthier and more productive lives. There are many sensible means at hand to extend this benefit even more to seniors.

Numerous factors contribute to falls among the elderly: diminished muscle tone and control, visual impairment, medications that may compromise vision and balance, and a lack of vital minerals and calcium. Not all falls are preventable, but some are. These important steps can reduce the dangers.

· Begin a regular and balanced exercise program, preferably under the guidance of a therapist experienced in working with the elderly. Weight programs that develop muscles, and exercises such as Tai Chi or yoga that can improve balance and reduce fatigue are some of the most helpful programs.

· Increase home safety. You will probably not be surprised to learn that steps and stairs are the leading cause of falls, in or outside the home. In the home, make certain that stair steps are of adequate and uniform size. Uniformity is very important, because any step down that is longer than expected can be a rude surprise when you’re not paying careful attention, especially for the elderly. Install handrails on both sides of all staircases whenever possible. Provide light switches at both top and bottom of any stairway. Make certain that all rugs and carpets are tightly woven and well-affixed to the floor—taped down, if necessary. Obviously, rugs are a dangerous hazard. Likewise, non-slip mats and “grab bars” are mandatory for the bathtub and shower. The elderly should wear supportive non-slip shoes. Extra care must be taken after drinking alcohol. (The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s booklet “Home Safety Checklist for Older Consumers,” can be ordered by phone at 1-800-638-2772, or through the Web site www.cpsc.gov )

· Have your doctor or pharmacist review all medications, and have prescriptions for glasses checked annually. Some medications, or combinations of medications, have side effects of drowsiness or light-headedness that can impair the sense of balance. Consult your doctor about the possibility of lowering the dosage of such medications.

· All of us are aware of the role osteoporosis plays in injuries resulting from falls. Modify your diet to include more essential vitamins and calcium, in order to maintain muscle tone and bone strength. As we grow older, the benefits of a regimented diet increase our chances of walking away from a mishap.