Every second of every day in the United States, someone at least 65 years old has a fall, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one out of five causes serious injury — such as broken bones and head trauma.
And after just one fall, the risk of it happening again doubles. As a result, falls are the leading cause of injury and injury-related death among elders.
Adults are at higher risk for falls because, over time, they tend to experience problems with balance. When older adults start to lose their balance, ordinary daily activities may become more difficult.
There are several reasons this happens:
Age-related muscle loss
One of the most common effects of age is involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength and function, known as sarcopenia. This condition commonly contributes to disability in older adults. Sarcopenia increases the risk of falls and ultimately makes older adults vulnerable to injury, losing functional independence and disability. The strongest way to fight sarcopenia is to keep your muscles active by walking and doing simple exercises, such as squats and toe raises.
The rise in polypharmacy — the interaction between multiple medications — can impact balance and stability. Many older adults are prescribed medications to help manage co-occurring health conditions. The interaction between various medicines can cause drowsiness and impair balance. A variety of some medications can also cause dizziness, blurred vision and vertigo.
In addition to medication interactions, poor balance and dizziness can also be a result of blood pressure issues. When blood pressure gets too low, older adults may feel lightheaded, faint and disoriented. When blood pressure gets too high, however, they may experience a spinning sensation. Ensuring that older adults are hydrated, eat regular small meals daily and are careful when sitting or standing will help maintain a healthy blood pressure. Reducing sodium intake and getting regular exercise also can support healthy blood pressure.
Unusual walking patterns
Some older adults tend to walk with an antalgic gait, or a limp, due to a painful joint. Patients with osteoarthritis of the ankle, knee or hip will avoid putting full weight on a painful limb, thus altering their center of gravity and making them at risk for falls. Those who suffer from a shuffling-type gait are also at increased risk of tripping over their feet and falling.
Tripping hazards, such as large rugs or floor decorations make falls more likely. Removing those items from a home will create clear pathways. Adequate lighting is also important.
If a doctor or therapist recommends a walking device, such as a cane or walker, don’t be afraid to use it. Don’t let the social stigma or the feeling of aging prevent you from using something that can help you maintain your balance and keep you safe.
Exercises to improve balance and stability
Although falls affect many older adults, there are exercises that can help increase stability and balance. These include:
- Strengthening and conditioning exercises for the lower extremities and core — such as sitting on a chair and lifting one leg at a time — can help maintain the center of gravity.
- Exercises to improve proprioception, which is the ability to sense where your body is in space — one of the main components of balance. An example of such exercises can be standing on one leg and alternating between hard and soft surfaces.
- Combinations of aerobic exercises, resistance training and balance training can prevent and even reverse muscle loss like that experienced in sarcopenia. At least two to four exercise sessions weekly may be required to achieve these benefits.
Before doing any exercise, it is important to see a physician. They can help identify the various factors that may contribute to your risk of falls and recommend targeted exercises.
If you think you or a loved one suffers from balance problems, talk to your doctor immediately. To find a primary care physician who can help, visit memorialcare.org/Providers.
Jason Koh, D.O., is the medical director of the MemorialCare Rehabilitation Institute at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center.
Source: Orange County Register