Taking a Stand to Prevent Falls

by Dr. Thomas Naro

Falls are NOT a normal part of aging. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) follows the trends and rates of how falls affect Americans. The results are alarming. From a 2015 study, researchers found that 55% of unintentional deaths of people 65 years or older were caused from falls. From the year 2000 to 2013, the total increase in death from fall injuries rose by 15%. To give a little more background on the reporting, deaths caused by fire (2%), suffocation (8%), and car accidents (14%) declined in this 13 year period.

There are a number of statistics out there about falls in this country. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more than 1/3 of adults 65 years or older fall each year; up to 30% of those who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries like bruising, hip fractures, or head trauma; and those injuries can limit a person’s mobility and independent living. The bottom line is: fall rates are high, mortality rates from falls are getting worse, and falls are preventable.

September 23rd marked the first day of autumn (fall) as well as the 8th annual Falls Prevention Awareness Day. The Falls Free® Initiative is lead by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) to reduce falls nationwide. If you aren’t aware of it yet, preventing falls is a major health topic. Thirteen percent of Farmington’s population is 65 years and older. The people who are 10 birthdays or less away from reaching that age group make up another 15% of Farmington’s residents. We all know loved ones, neighbors, acquaintances or passersby who are at risk for falling. However, it’s probably not your first thought when we see them. We can help make everyone safer by reducing the risk for falling. And it can start right now for you and everyone in your family.

Falls happen for many reasons and for each of those reasons there is a prevention tip. We can’t address them all in this article but once you get the idea, a little common sense goes a long way. Most falls actually happen in or around the home. So let’s start there. Make sure to keep rooms and hallways free of clutter, turn on the lights or use a night light when it’s dark, secure or remove throw rugs and electrical cords that you may trip over, use a rubber mat in the shower or tub and install grab bars in the bathroom. Medications play a role in causing falls. For instance, lightheadedness is one common side effect that may cause loss of balance. Review your medications with your physician or pharmacist regularly to know if this may happen to you. Vision plays a crucial role in staying on your feet. Unfortunately, vision declines as we age so having your eye sight examined annually and updating prescription lenses will help.

Visiting your doctor is a great way to see if you are at risk for falling. Having a history of falling at least once in the past 12 months is criteria for being at risk for falls. Other ways to tell if you or someone else may be at risk for falling includes: holding onto walls or counters when walking, frequent loss of balance, trouble getting out of a chair, challenged with climbing stairs, or shuffling feet when walking. These things tend to happen as we get older but it MUST NOT be mistaken for being normal. It is NOT NORMAL and attention needs to be brought about to correct these issues.

Training your body to become stronger and better at balance will reduce your risk for falling. Exercise classes like tai chi (pronounced “tie-chee”) are proven to increase balance. Tai chi classes are available at the Alton Senior Center. You can find other classes to help your balance at the Granite YMCA in Rochester. The NCOA recommends people with balance and walking problems to see physical therapist. A physical therapist will assess a person’s fall risk, provide exercises to improve strength and balance, and make other appropriate suggestions. Some people may need to use a walker or cane. A physical therapist will provide proper fitting and instructions on use for any assisted walking device.

Falling can happen at any age. Sometimes slipping on the ice, tripping over our own feet, or missing a step can make the best of us fall down. The younger we are, the better we “bounce” and recover. Staying on our feet comes from a combination of strength and coordination training that starts when we’re toddlers. Sports, recreation and fitness help maintain these skills as we grow into our adult years but it often stops for some reason in too many people. Encourage everyone you know to improve their strength and balance. It’s never too late to start and you scientifically are never too old to get make your muscles stronger. Falling is a real topic and shouldn’t be ignored. Remember the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? We all can make the people of Farmington (and everywhere else) stronger and safer by taking a stand to prevent falls.

Author Thomas Naro, MSPT, DPT is a doctor of physical therapy, partner/manager of Coppola Physical Therapy Farmington located at 395 NH Route 11. 

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