Falls are a serious health problem occurring in more than 30 percent of people older than age 65. Falls are also the leading cause of death due to injury, broken bones and a major cause of nonfatal brain injury among the elderly. For this population, injuries that result from falling often require hospitalization, as well as the need for rehabilitation and nursing home placement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year, and among that age group, falls are the leading cause of injury death. In 2008, 2.1 million nonfatal fall injuries among older adults were treated in emergency departments and more than 559,000 of these patients were hospitalized. People older than 75 who experience a fall are four to five times more likely than those age 65 to 74 to be admitted to a long-term care facility for a year or longer.

The CDC also says that many people who fall, even if they are not injured, develop a fear of falling. This fear may cause them to limit their activities, leading to reduced mobility and loss of physical fitness, which in turn increases their actual risk of falling.

What are the risk factors for falling?

The most critical factor for falling is age. The older you are the greater the chances you will fall. The increased use of medications and their side effects, as well as decreased strength and loss of coordination, puts seniors at greater risk. Health factors that increase chances of falling include; osteoporosis, use of a cane or walker, arthritis, foot problems, neurological illnesses such as seizures, stroke or Parkinsonism, impairment of vision or hearing and alcohol abuse. Having fallen once makes another fall more likely.

Environmental factors increase the probability of falling as well. Waxed, slippery or uneven floors, unsecured rugs, loose electrical chords in walking areas, low furniture, dim lighting and clutter in the home impact the likelihood of a dangerous stumble. Outside the home icy surfaces, uneven sidewalks and low shrubs can increase falls.

How can you reduce your risk of falling?

People can take action to lessen their risk of falling. Lower body strengthening exercises can improve both walking and balance. Tai chi, a traditional Chinese exercise, is an example of an activity has been shown to decrease the risk of falls.

It is advisable to review medications with your physician to minimize the number of medications and eliminate or reduce sedating medications that might impair functioning. Also, make sure your eyeglass prescription is current and have your eyes checked at least once a year.

If you take care of an elder, be sure to assess his or her home environment. Avoid using floor wax and throw rugs. Remove low furniture, loose wires and clutter. In the bathroom use non-slip mats and install grab bars next to the toilet and in the tub or shower. All stairways should have securely installed handrails on both sides of the stairs. Make sure all areas of the house have good lighting. Place night-lights around the house or leave dim lights on at night.

As we age it is important to use greater caution. Injuries from falls are painful and recovery takes longer for seniors, which may lead to loss of independence and immobility that ultimately leads to a diminished quality of life. Learn to welcome assistance from others when it comes to tasks you could once accomplish easily on your own _ by doing this you may be able to avoid injury and stay active.

Dr. Michael Levenstein, is an attending physician in internal medicine and geriatrics practicing at Bassett Healthcare Network—Oneonta Health Center. 'Senior Scene' columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/seniorscene.

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