Falling is a touchy subject. No one wants to admit that a fall is possible in their future. It’s also difficult to broach the topic with a parent or loved one. However, falling is a common occurrence as we age and is the leading cause of injury and death in older adults. Statistics from the National Council on Aging (NCOA) show that 1-in-3 or 12 million adults over the age of 65 fall every year in the United States.
Falls increase due to the natural physiological changes of aging. As a society, we’re pretty uncomfortable discussing aging, which is why something as common as falling is often ignored in conversations with family and health professionals. Yet, falls are preventable and it’s crucial we talk about them to decrease chance of injury and maintain independence.
Who is at risk and why?
It’s not any news that as we age, our bodies undergo tons of changes. Several of these changes increase the likelihood of falls and make injury more common. Our sensory system fades over time. In particular, eyesight and hearing ability gradually diminish. This decreases reaction time to obstacles such as loose rugs or objects on the floor. People with vision loss are twice as likely to fall according to the NCOA. In addition, chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease can lead to neurological problems that affect senses and balance.
One of the most serious consequences of falls is fractures. Fractures occur more frequently as we age due to a natural progression in decreased bone density after age 30 (yikes!). A large loss of bone density is referred to as osteoporosis and is more common in women due to loss of estrogen after menopause. It’s important to be tested for osteoporosis, so that you can start a program to improve bone density if necessary.
What you can do
Falls are common and aging seems to be working against us, but there is a lot you can do to avoid them. Below are some suggestions for planning and prevention.
Exercise is crucial to maintain strength and balance. Increased activity may seem counter-intuitive to preventing falls, but it will actually decrease the risk of falls and make injury less severe. Weight-bearing exercises that force you to work against gravity will keep your bones strong. These include activities such as walking, jogging tennis and dancing. Yoga and tai chi are great options that are both weight-bearing and promote balance!
Vitamin D and calcium are the superheroes of bone health. These nutrients work together to keep bones strong. Much of our vitamin D is synthesized in our skin from sunlight, but unfortunately you don’t get much during the winter in Minnesota. During the cold and dark months make sure to fuel up on egg yolk and salmon, which are great sources of the vitamin. Calcium powerhouses include dairy products and green vegetables like broccoli and kale.
Preventive measures at home can make a big difference. It is much easier to plan before an emergency than after. Here are some simple and relatively inexpensive solutions.
Install grab bars in the shower for stability and put a slip resistant mat on the bottom of the tub.
Put railings on both sides of the stairs and on the walkway outside to help with balance
Wear comfortable, non-slip shoes around the house. There are cheap and sturdy non-slip options on the internet and at discount shoe stores.
Home monitoring system
Investing in a home alert system is important, especially if you live alone. If you fall, the company is alerted and they will call you through an intercom system. The police or ambulance is notified if you need additional help. This system has saved the lives of several of my loved ones and is worth the money. It may take a while to get used to wearing the alert button, but it can be a matter of life or death in case of a fall or heart attack. Philips Life Line and ADT Companion Service are two popular systems. Make sure to ask around for referrals in order to choose the best company.
Talk to your family and health providers about concerns you have about falling. In addition, set up a network of family, friends and neighbors so that someone is always available in case of emergency. Find out your options for help with housework, yard work and errands even before you think you need them. This way you’ll know who to call if you do need assistance in the future. Below are some area resources:
Nokomis Healthy Seniors is a nonprofit organization that helps older adults to stay in their homes. The organization offers a variety of resources, including group exercise class, transportation services, weekly blood pressure clinics, social events and a lot more. I spoke to Megan, the executive director, who took the time to explain some of their great services. “Matter of Balance” is an eight-week class focused on fall prevention. The course features lectures, small group discussion and strength and coordination exercises. What a great resource for fall prevention! They also offer regular exercise and chair yoga classes. The weekly classes are open to everyone and run on suggested donations of $2 for exercise and $4 for yoga.
The organization also has a volunteer-run transportation program that provides rides to medical appointments. This is a great option for older adults without a car or if driving becomes difficult. Each round trip ride has a $5 suggested donation. NHS provides about 600 rides per year to the community. You must be in its service area to participate in this program.
Nokomis Healthy Seniors is located at Bethel Lutheran Church, 4120 17th Ave. S., Minneapolis 55407. There are also Healthy Senior programs in different locations. Check out its website to read more about its services and call the office for the most up-to-date event and class information and to find out if you are in the service area for its transportation program. Website: www.nokomishealthyseniors.com. Phone: 612-729-5499.
Another great, free service is The Senior LinkAge Line offered by the Minnesota Board on Aging. They tout themselves as “The Free Call that does it All,” and it really is. This phone-based program helps to connect you with resources in your area, including health care, transportation assistance, housekeeping and chore services. This is a wonderful one-stop shop. You can reach Senior LinkAge at 1-800-333-2433.
Exercise, nutrition and planning are the key to staying strong and preventing falls. Now that you are armed with information and resources, falling should seem less taboo, more preventable and definitely manageable.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and is currently a master’s candidate in nutrition and public health at the University of North Carolina. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and addresses relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at [email protected].