Taking a tumble may do more than break a senior's bones—it could also increase their risk of death.
For people 65 years old and older falls are the number one cause of death from an injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In 2008 alone, more than 19,700 seniors died from injuries sustained in a fall.
And, while the death rates of ailments such as cancer and heart disease have declined over time, death rates from falls have increased, particularly among the elderly—with 82% of fall deaths in 2008 happening to people who were at least 65 years old.
The real cause of death
The most common form of fall among the elderly population is a ground-level fall (where a person is standing on the ground before the fall). While this may not seem very dangerous when compared to a fall from a second-story window, consider this: a study conducted by researchers from the University of Mississippi, found that seniors older than 70 years experienced a three-fold increase in their risk of death after a ground-level fall when compared with those 69 years and younger.
What's behind this increased risk of death?
Depending on how a senior lands when they fall, they could experience everything from a broken hip to a traumatic brain injury.
According to the CDC, trauma to the brain was the cause of death in 46% of fall fatalities among seniors in the year 2000.
Even a less serious injury, like a broken bone, could require risky a surgical procedure involving sedation and further trauma—two things that can also put an older person's life in jeopardy. Preexisting conditions as well the overall physical frailty that plagues many aging adults can also impede their recovery from an injury-causing fall.
Even if a senior survives the fall and subsequent medical care, a longer recovery time translates to a longer hospital stay that can make a senior more vulnerable to disease and may ultimately render them incapable of caring for themselves. Only 22% of seniors in the University of Mississippi study could handle living on their own after being released from the hospital after a fall.
Preventing a treacherous tumble
A variety of factors can increase a senior's risk of falling. Age alone contributes to this risk by interfering with a person's eyesight, balance, and coordination. Add in elements like slippery floors, patches of ice and snow, and medications that can disorient a senior, and you've got the perfect recipe for an accident.
Even the just the fear of falling may increase a loved one's risk, according to a study done on older Australians.
Not every fall can be prevented, but taking certain steps can reduce a senior's risk:
- Construct a fall-proof environment: Whether your elderly loved one lives in their own home or with you, there are several things you can do to reduce their risk of falling. Removing clutter, throw rugs, and low-lying furniture can prevent tripping and installing grab bars in the bathroom and other slippery areas can provide additional stability for a senior.
- Double-check medications: Certain prescription meds can make a senior dizzy and thus increase the chance that they might fall. Have a pharmacist double-check your elderly loved one's medications to make sure that they are not
- Encourage exercise: Exercise, particularly weight-bearing exercise can increase a senior's coordination and strengthen their bones, which can help prevent and/or minimize the negative effects of fall.
- Get their eyes and bones tested: Remedying vision problems and treating osteoporosis can go a long way to protecting your senior from deadly falls.