Every 15 seconds, an older adult is seen in an emergency department for a fall-related injury, according to the National Council on Aging.
Sunday will mark the sixth annual fall prevention awareness day, designed to increase public awareness of preventing and reducing falls among older adults.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three adults older than 65 falls each year, although fewer than half that number report it to their doctor.
Falls may cause moderate to severe injuries, including lacerations, fractures of the spine, hip, forearm, leg, ankle, pelvis, upper arm or hand. They can increase the risk of early death and are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries. In 2000, traumatic brain injuries accounted for 46 percent of fatal falls.
In 2010, 2.3 million non-fatal falling injuries were treated in emergency departments, and more than 662,000 of those patients were hospitalized.
Death rates from falls have increased dramatically during the past decade, and men are more likely to die from a fall. Those 75 and older are four to five times more likely to be admitted to a long-term care facility for a year or more than those ages 65-74.
The financial implications related to falling are significant, the CDC reports. In 2010, the direct cost of falls, adjusted for inflation, was $30 billion. And yet, falling is preventable.
“Falls are not a normal part of aging,” said (Bonita) Lynn Beattie, vice president of injury prevention for the National Council on Aging, leader of the Falls Free Initiative. “We encourage seniors and their families to take proactive steps to prevent falls and to stay independent for as long as possible.”
Older adults may be living independently or with a spouse or family member and doing quite well until they experience some incident that requires a trip to a hospital emergency department, and that often signals the end of living independently, said Dr. Neal Flomenbaum, emergency physician-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weil Cornell Medical Center.
In the case of a fall, a senior’s ability to return home may depend on assessing the reason for the fall and using the information to help eliminate additional falls. If the fall is associated with using the toilet, then placing a grab bar by the toilet could allow for continued independent living, Flomenbaum said.
As people age, their fear of falling increases, and that may lead to limiting their activities. In turn, that may result in reduced mobility and loss of physical fitness, ultimately increasing the risk of falling.
One of the typically unmentioned reasons for women falling is urge incontinence. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco and reported in the July issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, women who feel a strong urge to urinate and have urine leakage before they reach the bathroom increase their risk of falling by 26 percent. Getting to the bathroom in time is amplified at night when poor lighting may be an issue.
While identifying and treating urge incontinence may decrease the risk of falls and fractures, women frequently neglect talking about the problem with their physician because they are embarrassed.
Steps to Prevent Falls
• Exercise regularly, and focus on increasing leg strength, weight bearing and improving balance.
• Have medications, prescription and over-the-counter, evaluated by a physician or pharmacist to identify medications that may cause side effects or interactions.
• Have eyes checked at least annually and update glasses to maximize vision.
• Reduce tripping hazards at home. Consult with a health professional about getting a fall risk assessment.
• Add grab bars inside and outside the bathtub or shower and next to the toilet.
• Add railings on both sides of stairways.
• Improve lighting in home.
• Routinely assess hearing acuity.
• To lower hip-fracture risk, adults can get adequate calcium and vitamin D from food or supplements.
• Get screened and treated for osteoporosis, if needed.