Falls are the leading cause of death, injury and hospital admissions among the elderly population. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, one out of every four Americans aged 65 and older falls each year.
Not only are seniors more prone to falling, but they are also more susceptible to injury. Of the nearly 36 million falls that happen annually among this age group, more than 8 million of these result in fall-related injuries like a broken hip or head trauma. Understanding why older individuals are at increased risk can help family caregivers take the proper precautions to keep their loved ones safely on their feet.
Why Do Elderly People Fall?
Several factors contribute to senior falls. Keep in mind that it is common for older adults to have one or more of the following risk factors.
Declines in Physical FitnessMany adults become less active as they get older, which exacerbates the physical effects of aging. Failure to engage in even mild exercise on a regular basis results in reduced muscle mass and strength (sarcopenia), decreased bone mass, poor balance and coordination, and reduced flexibility. Not only does overall deconditioning increase a senior’s risk of falling, but it also increases the likelihood that they will incur a serious injury and experience a longer, more difficult recovery.
Impaired VisionAge-related eye diseases make it difficult, if not impossible, to detect fall hazards, such as steps, puddles and thresholds. Even if a senior is in top physical condition, failing to see and accurately perceive obstacles or changes in ground level can lead to a nasty tumble. Refusing to follow physician recommendations for treatment, including wearing eyeglasses and using necessary low vision equipment can contribute to falls as well.
Medication Side EffectsA wide variety of medications increase a senior’s fall risk. Side-effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness and low blood pressure, can all contribute to an accident. Sedatives, antidepressants, antipsychotics, opioids and some cardiovascular drugs are the most common culprits. A study of polypharmacy in older adults found that 39 percent of this age group takes five or more prescription medications. Polypharmacy increases the risk of adverse drug reactions and drug-related falls. Keep in mind that over-the-counter medications and dietary supplements can have powerful side effects and synergistic effects, too.
Chronic DiseasesHealth conditions like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis that affect balance, physical strength, joint integrity and/or cognitive function contribute to falls. Poor physical health increases a person’s initial risk of falling and minimizes their ability to respond to hazards and recover from accidents, like tripping or slipping. Peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage, can cause numbness in the feet, making it very difficult for a senior to sense environmental hazards and get around safely.
Surgical ProceduresHip replacements and other surgeries can leave an elderly person weak, in pain and discomfort, and less mobile than they were before the procedure. This might be temporary while a patient heals or become a new and lasting problem. Senior rehabilitation is crucial for helping older adults recuperate quickly and recover as much of their physical, cognitive and functional ability as possible.
Environmental HazardsThe majority of falls occur in or around seniors’ homes. Environmental factors, such as poor lighting, clutter, areas of disrepair, loose carpets, slick floors and lack of safety equipment (e.g., grab bars, ramps, lifts), can jeopardize a senior’s safety. In many cases, unsafe living conditions ultimately lead to accidents and falls that prevent older adults from the ability to age in place.
Behavioral HazardsA person’s fall risk is also influenced by their unique lifestyle and behaviors. This includes the types of activities they engage in, the level of physical demand these activities require, and their willingness and ability to adapt their routine for enhanced safety. For example, laundry is a normal daily activity for many people, but it can involve a great deal of exertion for a senior, especially if they must carry a heavy laundry basket throughout their home. This can be risky on its own, but if they also refuse to wear secure, non-skid footwear or attempt to navigate stairs with the basket, they put themselves at greater risk. Failing to modify behaviors to account for new or increasing difficulties is a serious, yet common, contributing factor for falls in older individuals.
A fall rarely occurs due to only one of the reasons above. When any of these factors combine, it can lead to a serious, possibly life-threatening injury. Even if a loved one is lucky to escape a fall uninjured, the experience can leave them shaken. Unfortunately, the fear of falling again can cause them to withdraw and become more sedentary, which often leads to further physical and even mental decline. To keep your loved one safe and healthy, learn how you can help modify their home and lifestyle to improve safety and prevent falls.