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Falls among Seniors Could Be Fatal; Prevention is Key

​For many, a stumble isn’t life threatening. However, an accidental fall among older adults can start a chain reaction of health issues that could reduce their ability to remain independent, and possibly lead to an early death.

“As we age, the body changes,” says Dr. Anita Major, geriatrician, House Call Service, Harris Health System, and assistant professor, Geriatrics, Baylor College of Medicine. “Normal aging changes the way our organs work, including eyesight, sense of balance and our reaction time.”

The risk of falling becomes greater as people age. It’s often compounded by chronic diseases such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease. These health issues combined with environmental factors such as dim lighting and low furniture in homes increases the chance of accidental falls.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 million seniors—65 and older—are treated in an emergency hospital for falls. More than 800,000 are hospitalized, most often because of head injuries or hip fractures. Hip fractures represent 300,000 hospitalizations a year. One in five hip-fractured patients dies within a year of an injury. From 2007 to 2016, fall death rates in the U.S. have increased 30 percent—from 46 per 100,000 in 2007 to 61 per 100,000 in 2016.

Major says broken hips start a domino effect of other health complications for seniors.

“If you add any disease process to an older adult that has fallen, the problems multiply,” she adds.

CDC reports that in 2015 falls accounted for $50 billion in medical costs. Additionally, women account for three-quarters of all hip-fractures in part because women suffer more from osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones and makes them more likely to break.

“It’s important to stay active, as older adults will avoid activities to ensure they don’t fall. However, becoming less active can make them weaker, which increases the risk of falling,” Major says. “It’s important for them to maintain psychological resilience—stay positive and trust themselves in their recovery.”

Injuries from falls are so widespread that Harris Health began a structured program, Matter of Balance, to help seniors and other groups in the community learn to prevent falls in homes and yards by identifying known risk factors. The program is part of Ben Taub Hospital’s Trauma Services Program and includes physical therapists.

Harris Health experts say education is key to reducing falls and offer the following recommendations to keep older adults safe:

  • Have vision and hearing checked regularly
  • Know the side effects of medications—some may lead to loss of balance and coordination
  • Exercise to improve balance and strength
  • Make home safer
    • Remove small rugs
    • Keep clutter to a minimum; remove things from pathways that pose tripping hazards
    • Have grab bars next to a bath tub and toilet
    • Improve lighting in the home by adding more or brighter light bulbs