What happened to Mitch McConnell occurs to many older adults each year. Here's how to avoid falling
The CDC says one in four older adults falls each year. KERA’s Sam Baker talks about why with Dr. Deborah Freeland, an assistant professor of geriatric medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
What often causes older people to fall?
The tricky thing about falls is they can be caused by many things:
- Sometimes it's a balance or vestibular issue. Sometimes, sensation changes.
- Maybe you have numbness or tingling. Your diabetes has led to neuropathy, so things are numb.
- Maybe it's muscle weakness or vision issues.
- We sometimes see medications cause falls, and even low blood pressure or heart abnormalities like an abnormal heart rhythm could cause falls.
- And then we also see acute illness, like an infection that leads to falls in older adults.
So, falls can be caused by many different things. And while falls are more common as you get older, they are not normal aging. So if you are falling, you really want to get checked out by a doctor to try to figure out why and to prevent it.
Are older people often willing to admit that to their doctors?
A lot of times my patients will volunteer that information, but sometimes I do find that I'm the one asking. And then they say, "Oh yeah, I did fall a few months ago, or "Yeah, I am starting to fall more."
So, it's important for doctors to ask, but also for patients and those that are having falls to bring it up to their doctor.
Is the CDC right when it says falling once doubles your chance of falling again?
Absolutely. Some risk factors are older age, but also having had a fall in the past makes it more likely that you're going to fall again.
But also things like arthritis and foot problems. We see low vitamin D lead to falls, and then also neurologic conditions like dementia and Parkinson's disease or strokes. All of those independently increase your risk of falls.
Can these falls be prevented?
Yes. First, it's important to be seen by a doctor if you're having falls, but if you're worried about your balance or having falls, it is helpful to see your doctor and get a review of your medications, because sometimes medicines are behind this.
And then there are specific exercise programs that focus on strength and balance. And those two things are most helpful in preventing falls. A lot of research on Tai chi shows it reduces falls in older adults.
There are also simpler things you can do at home to try to prevent falls in the home:
Wearing appropriate shoes. We find that if your balance is worse, we want to make sure that your shoes have backs to them. So no more flip flops, and avoid high heels.
Assess your home for hazards. Throw rugs can cause tripping. Slippery floors can be problematic. It's really helpful to have clear pads and good lighting.
Some older adults need assistive devices. Make sure you've been assessed by your doctor and a physical therapist for a need for an assistive device. But we find that bathrooms or door frames are often too small for walkers. So making sure you have grab bars in the bathroom or the supports that you need if your assistive device does not fit through that doorway is also important.
And then, regular exercise. Just walking for 20 to 30 minutes a day can be really helpful in both building strength and balance and it helps with cardiovascular function.
Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.
Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.
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