Falls are the leading cause of accidental death in people 65 years old and older.
"It's also the most common cause of hip fracture in people 70 years old and older," says Dr. Ning Sun, a neurologist on staff at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital. "Falls are also a marker for poor health and declining function."
While some injuries fall into the minor category of scrapes and bruises, Dr. Roy L. Adair, Chair & Medical Director Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, agrees falling presents more of a danger to the elderly as opposed to those younger.
"We commonly see more severe injuries like head injury with attendant traumatic brain injury (TBI), intracerebral bleeding or bruising, fractures of the wrist or shoulder, spine fractures, hip fractures and foot and ankle fractures," says Adair. "Protective reflexes are slower in the elderly."
Winter's slippery sidewalks exacerbate the problem. "In the hospital setting, we definitely see a higher frequency of adults post-fall around the winter time," says Beth Gorman, coordinator of Physical Therapy and Rehab Technician Team Advocate at Christ Medical Center. "This is most commonly due to the icy and snowy conditions."
Make sure snow and ice are removed from pathways and also be aware of footwear with good traction. "Don't wear those nice leather soled shoes they are slippery when wet," says Adair.
Inside the home, environmental hazards include such offenders as rickety ladders, throw rugs and slippery bathroom surfaces.
"Elderly folks should remove all throw rugs in the home, EVEN though they may look nice," says Adair.
In the bathroom, make use of assistive devices such as grab bars, a shower seat, a non-slip surface in the tub, and a toilet frame with handrails as needed based on the level of balance impairment, advises Adair.
There are a number of physical conditions that can affect balance and precipitate a fall, says Sun. They include: reduced vision and hearing, vertigo from inner ear disease, dehydration, muscle weakness, joint problems from arthritis, poor coordination, feet problems, decreased sensation of feet from neuropathy, confusion and cognitive impairment, medication over use and neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease and stroke.
In addition, the natural aging process is a contributing factor. The musculoskeletal system changes with age resulting in loss of strength, decreased flexibility and slowing of reflexes.
"This occurs gradually at about a 1 percent loss of measured ability per year," says Adair.
Medication side effects are often under recognized as a fall risk factor, adds Adair. "Blood pressure medications, pain meds and sleeping meds may increase the chances of loss of balance and a fall," he says.
What to do
Connie Lechner, physical therapist at Adventist Paulson Rehab in Willowbrook, points to an active lifestyle as helping to achieve the right balance. "Be active, walk frequently throughout the day and don't sit longer than 30 minutes at a time," she says. "Ankle joints especially need to be flexible and strong to reduce the risk of tripping."
She says it is important, too, to make the connection between eyesight and falling. "Enhance your vision with regular eye exams, wear corrective lenses and use proper lighting when needed," she says.
Gorman suggests walking, participating in water aerobics, yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi or hobbies such as dancing or gardening to maintain strength of hips, knees, ankles and core muscles and maintain joint flexibility.
"Proper nutrition is also important to maintain bone density and slow the rate of age-related changes such as osteoporosis," she adds.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun