Falls are the leading cause of death from injury in men and women aged 65 or older. Each year, more than 500,000 people fall and suffer hip fractures.
And although walking, balance problems and falls occur more commonly as we get older, it is also true that there are various steps to prevent the vast majority of these tumbles.
Older adults fall for a variety of reasons, including age-related causes such as vision loss and joint pain from arthritis. However, some falls occur for other reasons and it is important to address the multiple causes with your doctor, significant others and family.
Many medical studies have helped identify the leading causes of falls, which include medication side effects (especially sleeping medications, blood pressure medications and certain medications for anxiety); medical conditions (like abnormal heart rhythms and arthritis); visual issues like cataracts; neurologic or brain issues (numbness in the feet, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and memory problems like Alzheimer’s); environmental issues (loose rugs, poor lighting); and low Vitamin-D levels.
Therefore, I recommend the following checklist to help reduce your risk of falls.
1) Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review your medications – both prescription and over-the- counter – to reduce potential side effects and interactions.
2) Have your eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year because vision is so important for balance.
3) Improve the lighting in your home and check for potential hazards such as extension cords in heavily trafficked areas, loose area rugs or clutter.
4) Exercise regularly. Exercises like tai chi that increase strength and improve balance are especially good. There are many community-based exercise classes available to older adults.
5) Look at your shoes and feet. Wear shoes that fit well and provide good traction and support. Tennis shoes are usually a good choice.
6) Be open to using walking-assistance devices (like a cane or walker) and get instruction from a physical therapist on their proper use.
7) Tell your doctor about any recent falls so that additional evaluations can be performed to prevent recurrent episodes.
8) Get a bone density scan and make sure you are taking appropriate amounts of calcium and Vitamin D to treat and prevent osteoporosis.
Falls are preventable and should be routinely evaluated as we age. Don’t be embarrassed to tell your doctor about falls. Take control to stay healthy and active!
Dr. Jeffrey DeCastro Mariano is a board-certified geriatrician with the UCLA Geriatrics Program, with offices in Santa Monica and Westwood. Information: (310) 319-4371.