June 12, 2019 by John Fernandez
Deadly Falls in Older Adults Rising, Study Finds. Here are Preventive Steps.
The number of Americans over the age of 75 who die following a fall is rising sharply, according to a major new study published this week in the medical journal JAMA.
The rate of mortality from falls more than doubled from 2000 to 2016, researchers found. In 2016, the rate of death from falls for adults 75 and older was 111 per 100,000 people. That’s a significant increase from the death rate in 2000, which was 52 per 100,000 people, the study cites.
Researchers said the reason for the spike was unclear, but there are likely factors, including medications that increase the likelihood of falling and the mere fact that more people are living longer, even with chronic conditions that may make them more vulnerable to falls. Nonetheless, researchers said more studies are needed.
“The circumstances behind the increasing trends in mortality from falls are not fully understood,” the study’s authors conclude. “Future studies should focus on explaining the recent increase in mortality from falls, especially among the oldest age groups and what can be done to tailor interventions.”
Causes of falls among adults older than 65 include tripping, slow reflexes, balance problems, reduced muscle strength, poor vision, illness, dehydration and reactions to medications that may include loss or balance or dizziness. For the elderly, falls can affect quality of life, especially if they suffer serious injuries, such as hip fractures.
Each year, more than one in four adults aged 65 and older will fall. For this group, falls are the No. 1 cause of injuries and the top cause of death from injury.
That amounts to 29 million falls, 3 million emergency department visits, 800,000 hospitalizations, and 28,000 deaths every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It can be life-threatening if you take a bad fall,” says Samantha Taghva, M.D., internal medicine physician at Baptist Health South Florida. “There’s a lot of data that shows after a hip fracture patients are essentially not the same. People are just not the same and to become bed-bound at that age really affects quality of life. But there are things you can do to prevent these falls.”
Steps to Preventing Falls
Here are the primary six steps you can take to prevent a fall, according to the National Council on Aging:
- Find a good balance and exercise program. Look to build balance, strength and flexibility. Find a program that you like and take a friend.
- Talk to your healthcare provider. Ask for an assessment of your risk of falling. Share your history of recent falls.
- Regularly review your medications with your doctor. Make sure side effects aren’t increasing your risk of falling. Take medications only as prescribed.
- Get your vision and hearing checked annually, and update your eyeglass prescription. Your eyes and ears are key to keeping you on your feet.
- Keep your home safe. Remove tripping hazards, increase lighting, make stairs safe, and install grab bars in key areas.
- Talk to your family members. Enlist their support in taking simple steps to stay safe. Falls are not just an older adult’s issue.
Most falls are caused by a combination of risk factors. The more risk factors a person has, the greater their chances of falling. The CDC states the following as the top risk factors for falls, especially among adults age 65 and older:
- Lower-body weakness
- Vitamin D deficiency (that is, not enough vitamin D in your system)
- Difficulties with walking and balance
- Use of medicines, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, or antidepressants. Even some over-the-counter medicines can affect balance and how steady you are on your feet.
- Vision problems
- Foot pain or poor footwear
- Home hazards or dangers such as broken or uneven steps, and throw rugs or clutter that can be tripped over.
If you have elderly family members, it’s important that someone is visiting them, especially if they live alone and even if they reside in an assisted-living facility, says Dr. Taghva. If they are having difficulty walking or standing, they should be undergoing medically-supervised physical therapy, assuming their overall health is good.
“They should be learning how to stand on both feet and getting checked out by a neurologist if they’re having difficulties with feelings or sensations,” says Dr. Taghva. “We know that a lot of the time what ends up happening and why people fall is that they start losing sensation in the bottom of their feet. They kind of take a wrong step and they fall.”