As adults age, the constant, terrifying threat of falls looms over them: Everyone knows that once you reach old age, a broken hip or head injury can spell certain disaster.
Now, there is even more reason to worry. Surprising new research from the CDC shows that among Americans aged 65 plus, fall-related deaths have tripled in the last ten years. That adds up to more than 25,000 deaths a year.
The rise in fall-related deaths
The research, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that almost 25,000 people aged 75 and older died as a result of falls in 2016 – 31% more than in 2000. The study tracked both men and women and found that the increase in fall related deaths was about the same for each group. In addition, both groups were more likely to experience death as a result of falls as the median age increased.
For example, the death rate due to falls among 75- to 79-year olds was 42 per 100,000 people. Among those aged 95 and old, the rate was 591 per 100,000.
Lead researcher Elizabeth Burns said, “If deaths from falls continue to increase at the same rate, the U.S. can expect 59,000 older adults will die because of a fall in 2030.”
Risk factors for falling
Exactly why the rates of fall-related deaths is increasing isn’t entirely clear, researchers said. One obvious explanation is that people today are living longer than ever before – and many of them live on their own without help or experience chronic conditions which leave them predisposed to falling.
According to Dr. Burns, “The chance of falling increases with age, and risk is higher with certain chronic diseases, such as a history of stroke, arthritis, diabetes, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.”
In addition, many medications common to older adults (such as blood pressure meds), make them prone to fall. Other risk factors include a sedentary lifestyle, chronic diseases, neurologic issues, and incontinence.
One in three adults over 65 takes a serious tumble every year – and even though most of those falls don’t result in death, the risk is always there. More often, however, a fall will result in a serious injury or permanent disability. According to Aging.com:
- When an elderly person falls, their hospital stays are almost two times longer than those of elderly patients who are admitted for any other reason
- Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for fall-related injuries
- Two-thirds of those who fall will do so again within six months
- One in ten falls resulting in serious injuries such as hip fracture, other fractures, subdural hematoma, or traumatic brain injury
- The most profound effect of falling is the loss of functioning associated with independent living
How to reduce the risk of falls
The important thing to remember is that falls can be avoided.
Another study in the Journal of the American Medical Association tested a home-based exercise program aimed at helping seniors prevent falls. Researchers found that a home-based strength and balance exercise program reduced falls in older adults by 36% in just 12 months.
A few of the exercises that can help reduce risk include:
- Walking (both forward and backward!)
- Balance exercises such as Tai Chi or squats
- Resistance exercises with light weights or bands
Those who need extra help should consider home visits by a physical therapist, or asking a care giver or family member for assistance if that’s not an option. In addition, it’s also important to take steps to prevent and treat osteoporosis to help avoid future complications.
For those whose fear of falling affects their daily life, the State of New Jersey, Department of Human Services, Division of Aging Services run a fabulous program called A Matter of Balance: Managing Concerns About Falls.
The program is designed to reduce the fear of falling and increase the activity levels of older adults who have this concern. The class utilizes a variety of activities to address physical, social, and cognitive factors affecting fear of falling and to learn fall prevention strategies. For more information: http://bit.ly/2W3lTEB