The first day of the fall season (Sept. 22) has been designated Fall Prevention Awareness Day by the National Council on Aging. But preventing falls must be a year-round activity, especially for those at high risk.
“Falling is not a normal part of aging,” says Cleveland Clinic physical therapist Christina Bebb, DPT. But it is normal to experience changes with age that make falling more likely. Muscles get weaker, balance is not as good, and reaction time slows down. When you were younger and stumbled, your body could probably more easily sense the sudden imbalance, make an adjustment, and right itself. Nonetheless, people of all ages fall
Who’s at Risk?
In addition to aging, other factors can put you at higher risk for falling. Having fallen in the past raises the chances that you might fall again, especially if the fall resulted in an injury. Feeling unsteady when you walk or needing to hang onto something, such as furniture or the walls, makes you more likely to fall. “People come to rely on that support, which can change the way they walk,” says Bebb. They may lean forward or have a change of posture that can increase fall risk.
Certain medical conditions can contribute to fall risk, including Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, loss of sensation in the feet (such as in diabetic neuropathy), ankle and foot problems, knee arthritis and vision problems. Medications that make you sleepy, affect your mood or cause changes in blood pressure can also increase the chances of falling
“Some risk factors can’t be changed, so I tell people to focus on the things they can change,” says Bebb. “If you don’t address them, it can get worse. But if you do, it can improve and you really can lower your risk for falling.”
Benefits of Exercise
In April 2018, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force published recommendations for the prevention of falling among older adults based on a review of scientific studies. The evidence was strongest for exercise
Bebb recommends a comprehensive program that combines exercises for balance, strength and flexibility. “My main recommendation is to do something you enjoy,” she says. If you like exercising with a group, find a class. Tai chi, yoga and pool exercises are all beneficial for balance. The fitness program Silver Sneakers (www.silversneakers.com) offers free classes across the country for people age 65 and older on Medicare
“With balance exercises, it shouldn’t be so easy that it’s a piece of cake, and it shouldn’t be so hard that you’re falling over,” says Bebb. Start with something easy.
Ideally, balance exercise should be done every day. “You’re better off doing them for a shorter duration more often,” says Bebb. “Every day for five minutes can be better than twice a week for 20 minutes.” Combine it with something you do every day, like brushing your teeth. Bebb also advises staying as active as possible.