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Exercising Caution: Dog Walkers Who Are 65-Plus Can Be Injury-Prone: Study

Going for long and brisk walks can make for an ideal aerobic routine or an excellent way of starting a regular exercise program. But adults in their 60s and older, or those with balance problems, should take precautions that include seeking a doctor’s assessment of your risk of falling.

Now, a new study found that walking a leashed dog — which is normally considered good exercise for both the pet and the owner — can increase the risk of fractures in older adults. These injuries could be serious and life-altering such as hip fractures — and such dog-walking accidents are increasing significantly, according to a study published in the medical journal JAMA Surgery [1]. Older women who owned dogs that needed to be walked were especially at risk of associated injury, researchers said.

From 2004 to 2017, researchers said there were more than 32,000 emergency room cases of fractures associated with walking leashed dogs among people 65 and older. These cases jumped from an estimated 1,671 ER visits in 2004 to 4,396 in 2017 — that’s a 62 percent increase.

The primary reasons why older adults are more prone to fractures include reduced bone mass as they age and increased fall frequency. Older women who owned dogs in need of walking were especially at risk of associated injury, the study found. Overall, older adults have a greater tendency for fall-related injuries because of slow reflexes, balance problems, reduced muscle strength, poor vision, illness, dehydration and reactions to medications that may include loss or balance or dizziness.

Nonetheless, older adults can greatly benefit from a safe, regular exercise program with proper precautions —  and possibly medications to treat underlying health issues which could contribute to falls, say doctors and fitness experts.

“It’s always important for seniors to get their regular checkups, and if they have any doubts, to consult with their doctor about starting an exercise program,” said Rozan Razzouk, M.D. [2], a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care [3]. “With a doctor’s assistance, they can determine how much they can tolerate.”

As part of a major study of lifelong exercisers last year, researchers found that adults in their mid-70s who have been active for most of their lives have similar cardiovascular health as 40- to 45-year-olds. The benefits of regular exercise, involving both aerobics and strength-training routines, have long been established as helping prevent chronic conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.

“Regular exercise can help slow down cognitive decline as we age,” said Dr. Razzouk. “Physical activity can help sharpen the mind, as well as minimizing or preventing chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure and overall heart disease.”

Still, the new dog-walking study raises the issue of safety for senior who exercise regularly by taking their dogs out for walks. “For older adults — especially those living alone and with decreased bone mineral density — the risks associated with walking leashed dogs merit consideration,” the study’s authors wrote. “Even one such injury could result in a potentially lethal hip fracture, lifelong complications, or loss of independence.”

Steps to Preventing Falls
Here are the primary six steps you can take to prevent a fall, according to the National Council on Aging:

  1. Find a good balance and exercise program. Look to build balance, strength and flexibility. Find a program that you like and take a friend.
  2. Talk to your healthcare provider. As for an assessment of your risk of falling. Share your history of recent falls.
  3. Regularly review your medications with your doctor. Make sure side effects aren’t increasing your risk of falling. Take medications only as prescribed.
  4. Get your vision and hearing checked annually, and update your eyeglass prescription. Your eyes and ears are key to keeping you on your feet.
  5. Keep your home safe. Remove tripping hazards, increase lighting, make stairs safe, and install grab bars in key areas.
  6. Talk to your family members. Enlist their support in taking simple steps to stay safe. Falls are not just an older adult’s issue.

Guidelines for Adults 65 and Older
If you are 65 years of age or older, are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions, you can follow these guidelines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: