Take action to keep your balance

Falls: Elderly at risk for potentially serious injuries, but exercise is a step in the right direction.

Life After 50

January 28, 2001|By Loretta Tofani | Loretta Tofani,Knight Ridder / Tribune

As people age past 65, the risk of falls and fractures grows. But there are ways to lower those odds. Research suggests that exercise, particularly exercise that improves balance, strength and coordination, can help prevent tripping and stumbling.

The statistics show why prevention is important:

Fractures cause 12 percent of deaths of people 65 or older -- the sixth-leading cause of death for that age group, according to the Journal of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

In the United States, one of three adults 65 or older falls each year, according to federal statistics.

Among older adults, falls are the most common cause of injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.

Falls often cause hip fractures, and half of all older adults hospitalized for hip fractures cannot return home or live independently after their injuries.

Women are more at risk for falls than men: Sixteen percent of postmenopausal women will have a hip fracture, and up to 40 percent will have a fracture related to osteoporosis during their lifetime, according to a recent article in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. The disease causes bones to thin and weaken, which can cause more falls as well as more severe injury.

Physicians suggest that people try to prevent falls and fractures by exercising and taking calcium, Vitamin D supplements and drugs to prevent or treat osteoporosis.

A recent study showed that a girdlelike garment with padded hips has been effective in preventing fractures among the elderly who fall.

Those who suffer from diseases that cause dizziness, muscle rigidity, muscle tremors, or decreased sensation in feet and legs are more susceptible to falls. For them, exercising in water is beneficial.

"They become fearful of falling, and if they're not up and moving, it can cause other health problems that keep someone from being independent," says Neil Shepard, a professor of otolaryngology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and director of the hospital's balance center.

Their restricted mobility also adds to their likelihood of falling, as they lose balance and coordination. Plus, their fear of falling, in a vicious cycle, also makes falls more likely to happen.

And so, the plunge into water exercise.

"In the water a participant might be more willing to practice the movements that are needed to prevent a fall," researchers in the Journal of Gerontology wrote.

In their study, the researchers, Valerie Simmons and Paul Hansen, found that because they felt safe in the water, people were willing to use a greater range of motion than when exercising on land.

Don't fall into trouble

Occupational and physical therapists offer ways that older people can prevent falls:

Wear shoes that fit properly. Shoes should be sturdy and comfortable. Women should avoid high heels, which disturb balance.

After waking up, sit on the side of your bed for a few minutes before standing to avoid dizziness. Blood pressure tends to drop among elderly who move too quickly from a lying or seated position, causing dizziness and falls.

Stop rushing. Take your time and be aware of your surroundings.

Remove safety hazards like scatter rugs, extension cords and dropped items. Avoid wet floors inside and fallen leaves outside.

Improve the lighting in your home, using higher-watt bulbs or more lamps. See an eye doctor to correct vision problems, including cataracts. Poor lighting and eyesight difficulties often contribute to falls among the elderly.

While at the doctor, get your medicines checked -- some can contribute to balance problems.

Try to sit in chairs that you can get into and out of easily -- chairs with armrests and good back support. Add pillows to the back of a chair to make it easier to get out of.

Install guard rails in the bathtub or shower, and use railings throughout the house.

Exercise. Gardening, balloon volleyball, water exercises and tai chi can help increase strength and balance, and help prevent falls.

Women should be checked and treated for osteoporosis. More than 30 percent of postmenopausal women have the disease, which results in a loss of bone density.

-- Knight Ridder / Tribune

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