Preventing Falls in Older Adults
By Steve Kurtz, Cardinal Retirement Village, Akron LIVING WELL Magazine
Falls are the leading cause of injury related death for adults older than 64 and the most common cause of hospital admissions for trauma. One out of three adults in this age range will fall each year, primarily due to one of several preventable causes. Ongoing education and awareness of fall prevention are critical for aging adults. Senior living communities may also offer additional safety measures through more formalized programs. Whether living at home or within a community, the following risk factors are a threat to the independence of all aging adults.
Osteoporosis is perhaps the most common cause of bone fractures in older adults, especially among women, and results from hormonal changes, calcium and vitamin D deficiency and lack of physical activity. These all lead to a decrease in bone density, which contributes to falls.
Prevention – Calcium and vitamin D supplements will help offset the negative effects of aging bones. Some calcium rich foods include fish and shellfish, tofu, almonds, broccoli, soybeans and dairy products. Regular exercise will also help to strengthen joints and reduce arthritic pain.
LACK OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
A reduction in activity results in weaker muscles, joints and bones, making it more difficult to respond to slips and more challenging angles of movement.
Prevention – Consistent, mild activities such as walking, stretching, dancing and light weightlifting will improve muscle tone, strength and balance. Most doctors and physical therapists also recommend walking at least 20 minutes every other day to realize aerobic and cognitive benefits.
Our eyes are the most important of our senses in guiding us along to our destinations. Ocular impairments negatively affect our peripheral vision and depth perception, which reduce our ability to notice and react to visual cues.
Prevention – Visit the optometrist at least once each year to screen for glaucoma and cataracts and to update prescriptions. Use bold and contrasting colors to help identify areas of caution such as throw rugs, hand rails, grab bars and steps.
At least one-third of elderly falls occur at home due to an environmental hazard. Tripping over loose items on the floor is the most common. The clutter of furniture and collectibles can severely limit pathways and make small areas increasingly hazardous.
Prevention – Bundle loose electrical cords with Velcro; Eliminate small throw rugs; Secure loose edges of larger rugs and carpet; Reduce clutter; Install grab bars and non-slip surfaces in bathroom areas; Add night lights and entryway lights; Select new carpeting with lower nap; Install handrails along steps; Replace steps with ramps.
Daily medications can leave a wide ranging effect on an older adult’s ability to balance and their perception of depth and distance. Medical drugs also increase the risk of falling by dulling the senses.
Prevention – Know all of the potential side effects of each medication. Schedule medications during downtimes with limited activity. Properly dispose of all expired drugs. Limit or avoid consumption of alcohol when taking medications.
While it may seem ironic, the devices used by older adults to prevent falls often cause the falls they’re meant to avoid. In 2009, a five-year study was published showing that 47,000 older adults are hospitalized for falls resulting from the use of a walker or cane. Of these, 87% were walker-related. Another downside to the use of mobility devices is the increased dependence upon them. What often follows is a decrease in physical activity and the corresponding benefits.
Prevention – Follow the advice of doctors and licensed physical therapists before deciding to use a walker or cane. Some pharmacies and medical supply houses often sell equipment without properly assessing the needs of the individual. If a mobility device is recommended, make sure to be properly fitted and trained on its use.
Steve Kurtz is with Cardinal Retirement Village and helped develop the Active Lifestyles Program for senior residents. To learn more about Cardinal Retirement Village, 171 Graham Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, OH, please contact Executive Director Andy Rieth at
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 1998-2011
Journal of the American Geriatrics Society; 2009
ColoradoStateUniversityExtension.edu ; 2005
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2010