Perhaps you know someone who’s been injured, disabled or even died from injuries relating to a fall. Or maybe you’ve taken a spill yourself and are afraid the next one could be worse. As we age, time takes its toll on the systems in our body that keep us balanced and standing upright. For example, you may not see or hear as well, which can affect your coordination.
Also, as you become older nerves that carry information from your brain to your muscles may deteriorate, slowing your reaction time and making it more difficult to adjust to icy patches on a sidewalk. Normal declines in muscle strength and joint flexibility can hinder your ability to stand, walk and rise from chairs. In 2003, more than 1.8 million seniors were treated in hospital emergency rooms for fall-related injuries and of those treated, more than 421,000 were hospitalized.
Unsteadiness and falls don’t have to be a part of aging. You have the power to stay securely on your feet. A physical activity program, lifestyle changes and home improvements may help to reduce your risk.
If you have the misfortune to find yourself falling, take the following steps to reduce your risk of serious injury. Try to fall forward on your hands, or if you fall backward try to land on your buttocks—but not on your spine. Also, if you find yourself falling, protect your head from striking furniture or the floor. If you live alone, and are afraid no one will help you if you fall, ask someone to check on you once a day. Set up a “Buddy System” or consider paying for an emergency-monitoring company.
Don’t let a fear of falling rule your life, however, as many falls and fall-related injuries are preventable. Studies have identified a number of risk factors that increase the likelihood of a fall. These include medication side effects, loss of limb sensation or balance, poor eyesight, tripping hazards within the home, and lack of physical activity.
Dr. Robin Swaim, a local Oregon chiropractor, says there are four things you can do to minimize the likelihood of a fall:
• Begin a regular exercise program. Exercise is one of the most important ways you can lower your chances of falling. Exercise makes you stronger, helps with your balance and coordination of movement, makes you more flexible and helps you feel better. Lack of exercise will lead to weakness of the major muscle groups and increases your risk of falling. Consider a general exercise program that includes activities such as walking, water workouts or tai chi—a gentle exercise program that improves your balance and coordination.
• Review your medications with your health care provider. Have your doctor or pharmacist review all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter medicine and any herbs or supplements. Your risk of falling may increase if you take certain prescription medications to treat age-related medical conditions. Many medications have side effects that can affect your brain function and lead to dizziness or a sensation of feeling faint. Taking multiple medications magnifies the risk, as does combining prescription drugs with alcohol, over-the-counter allergy or sleeping medications, painkillers, or cough suppressants. The way certain medicines work in your body can change as you get older. Also, if you are taking medication that can affect your balance, talk to your doctor about whether you need a walking aid or support while taking the medication.
• Have your vision checked. Have your eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year. Reduced vision increases risk of falls. Age-related vision diseases, including cataracts and glaucoma, can limit your vision. These limitations hinder your ability to move safely. Also, make sure to regularly clean your glasses to improve visibility.
• Perform a home safety check. About one third to one half of all falls happen at home. These usually involve hazards within the home. Most commonly, people trip over objects on the floor. See the Home Safety Checklist and work with a family member or health care provider to evaluate your home for potential hazards and minimize your risk of injury.
Dr. Swaim’s Home Safety Checklist
• Remove anything you can trip over from stairs and paths in the house where you walk.
• Never, ever have electrical cords or wires on the floor in your walking path!
• Remove small throw rugs or use double-sided carpet tape to keep the rugs from slipping. Test it out afterwards to make sure the rug will not slip. Make sure the edges of carpets lie flat.
• In the kitchen, try to keep those items you use often in cabinets you can reach without having to use a step stool.
• Don’t wax your floors. If you feel you must, then use a nonskid-type wax.
• In the bathroom, put up a grab bar in the tub/shower and one next to the toilet. Use a non-slip bath mat.
• Improve the lighting in your home. You see better with brighter lights. Put night lights in the hallways and in your bedroom if you get up and move about at night. It’s better though to have a lamp near the bed that you can turn on before you get up. Remember, you see better with brighter lights.
• All staircases must have handrails and lights.
• Don’t walk around either inside the house or outside without wearing shoes. Both slippers and bare feet increase your chance of slipping.
• In the event that you should fall, make sure that the telephone can be reached from the floor.