Blog by Molly Wigand, www.forbes.com
Suffering a fall is a frightening concern for older adults and those who care for them—and with good reason. Falls were the leading cause of injury among adults age 65 and older in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
By managing personal risk factors and creating safe home environments, seniors and caregivers can reduce the likelihood of a debilitating fall at home.
Fall Prevention: Why It Matters
Negative outcomes from a fall range from minor bruises and tears to fractures and other injuries requiring an emergency room visit or surgery with prolonged recovery, according to Denise Zwahlen, M.D., a geriatrician in the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the University of Kansas Health System.
Meanwhile, the psychological effects of a fall can be devastating. “If a person develops a significant fear of falling, whether overly cautious or realistic, it can lead to fear of leaving the home or even limit walking within the home,” says Dr. Zwahlen. “This fear can lead to social isolation, putting one at risk for cognitive decline or depression.”
Preventing falls at home depends both on mitigating personal medical risk factors and creating a safe living space that minimizes falls.
How to Minimize Personal Risk Factors for Falling, According to Experts
Risk factors of falls may include intrinsic factors like physical or mental dysfunctions, impaired vision and hearing, and age-related changes, as well as extrinsic factors like medications, one’s living environment and improper use of assistive devices. With the help of their health care providers, older adults and their caregivers can take an active role in preventing falls by recognizing and addressing their health-related risk factors.
Stay Mindful and Focused
Staying focused is essential in preventing senior falls, says Jessica Kalender-Rich, M.D., a geriatrician and post-acute medical director for the University of Kansas Health System. “As people get older, it can get harder to multitask,” she explains.
Memory loss and other cognitive issues can also increase fall risk. “If you think about it, walking and having the reflexes to right yourself if you lose your balance both require a lot of steps,” says Dr. Kalender-Rich.
Dr. Zwahlen suggests a person’s caregiver intervene when their loved one is confused or unsteady on their feet. “Providing cues and reminders or even direct assistance can help prevent falls,” she says.
Taking at least four different medications (especially psychotropic, diuretic or sedative medications) could be a risk factor for falls. Many medicines can contribute to a person’s fall risk, including (but not limited to):
- Antihistamines like Benadryl
- Prescription drugs used to treat overactive bladder
- Anti-anxiety medications, such as diazepam and lorazepam
- Tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline
- Prescription sleep medications
- Narcotics (opioids)
- Taking too much of a particular medication can also make falls more likely, says Dr. Zwahlen.
“It’s important to work with your doctor to review your medicine list and stop medicines that aren’t necessary or use the lowest effective dose,” she advises. “Ask which medications might be contributing to feeling dizzy or falling.”
Regular Assessments With a Health Care Provider
When an older adult visits their doctor’s office, some regular assessments may be needed. In addition to assessment of mental status and physical conditions like balance, endurance, flexibility and gait speed, their vision, hearing and walking devices (if applicable) should be examined and evaluated as well.
Stay Hydrated and Maintain a Balanced Diet
Dr. Zwahlen warns that dehydration can increase fall risk, potentially causing low blood pressure, as well as dizziness and loss of balance.
What’s more, specific nutrients included in a balanced diet can be beneficial in preventing falls, she says. For instance, vitamin B12 preserves sensation in the feet, as well as protects cognitive function. High-quality protein helps maintain muscle mass and overall health. And a study in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation found vitamin D, in addition to its bone-strengthening benefits, can play a role in minimizing falls in the elderly as well.
Keep Physically Active
“Exercise is really important to improve balance,” says Dr. Kalender-Rich. “The best exercise is resistance exercise that focuses on the upper legs, hips and core strength.” She recommends tai chi (which studies suggest can help improve balance), water aerobics, chair yoga and strength exercises with weights.
Dr. Zwahlen agrees. “Just be sure to pick a class or participate at a level that is safe for you,” she cautions.