Fear of falling [Commentary]

Cold and ice are a threat, but so is a sunny summer day

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Everybody was afraid of freezing. I was afraid of falling.

During the recent polar vortex — we used to call them cold snaps — warnings were issued about frostbite and how quickly it can attack bare skin when temperatures drop into the single digits and below.

But while the rest of the world was covering up, I was concentrating on staying upright.

I have what is known as a fear of falling, and I should, because I fall often enough.

It is a natural fear and typical of most humans, to varying degrees. The problem is, the more often you fall, you more likely you are to reduce your activity level — and that robs you of the physical gifts that keep you from falling.

I am utterly terrified of ice, and there was plenty of it around this week. Getting down the front steps and across the driveway to my car seemed like an impossible journey. Walking to a neighbor's house for a cup of coffee on a freezing morning was out of the question.

And this was after everybody had shoveled.

I don't need ice to fall. I can do it on a sunny summer day on a bit of uneven sidewalk. I can do it walking across my kitchen floor. I can do it crossing the lawn to one of my gardens. Boom. Down I go, like I've been shot.

There isn't anything wrong with me that being 30 years younger wouldn't cure.

About one in three people over the age of 65 will fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. I just started a little early. In 20 to 30 percent of those falls, the person will sustain moderate to severe injuries.

What kind of shape they were in before the fall will determine their recovery. For those who are fit and active and have few other issues, the prognosis is good. For those who are already compromised, a fall can mean a walker, a wheelchair or the end of independent living.

We fall for lots of reasons.

Years of pounding aerobics left me with mild soreness in my knees and hips, and that has changed my gait. I walk funny to avoid pain. In addition, we walk more slowly with age, but we think that we are still moving like a 20 year old.

Impaired vision, medication, too many scatter rugs and not enough railings. These are all reasons we might fall.

But we have also been losing our sense of balance since about the age of 25, and that is a very big reason for falls. Balance is as important as any of our other senses –— so much so that some experts think it should be considered a sixth sense, along with sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

Balance is the result of all the messages sent to the brain from our feet, our eyes and our inner ears. But as we age, our vision deteriorates and our feet are less sensitive — and less able to respond to the messages the brain is sending.

In addition, there are three tiny loops in each ear called the vestibular apparatus, and inside these loops are little hairs in a fluid bath. The hairs send messages to the brain about where we are in space when the fluid in the loops shifts. Trouble is, as we age, those hairs die off and there is less information going to the brain. And even simple tasks can jeopardize this diminished system of balance.

My fear of falling actually makes it more likely that I will fall, not less likely. My abundance of caution may cause me to limit my activities, and that's not good. Balance is a real use-it-or-lose-it physical skill.

So I soldier on through my fear of falling, determined to keep walking and buoyed by my husband's encouragement.

"You have great legs," he tells me. "It's just that they are purely ornamental."

Susan Reimer's columns appear on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


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