When we are young, falling is a fact of life, a normal rite of passage. It’s something that happens the moment we start toddling and continues through the new bike years of childhood. By the teenage years, our falls are pretty much limited to the “head over heals” kind or those caused by sports. As young people, we only think of really violent falls as serious, the ones where our heads hit concrete or when we fall off something from a high distance.
The young boy with the broken arm loves the attention he gets from his classmates for a fall that caused damage that is temporary. It will likely heal in six weeks.
Seniors, on the other hand, want no attention for falling. Many fear the consequences not just to their bodies, but to their way of life. A fall might mean a loss of independence, a sign of growing physical weakness, an “excuse” for the “kids” to start talking about nursing homes.
It’s true, falls are far more devastating, on average, for older people. Falls are the number 1 reason for admission to skilled nursing facilities and they are a major factor in 40 % of all admissions for any reason. 1 in 3 seniors fall each year.
In San Diego County, in 2008, there were 12, 535 seniors treated in the emergency department for falls. In 2007, falls were the cause of 186 deaths.
Why so many falls? First, let’s look at how our balance system works. We have our sense of vision, or sence of touch, and our vestibular/inner ear. Our eyesight and our inner ear help keep us stable. Information from our eyesight, inner ear, and our sense of touch is coordinated in our brain to give us balance. The problem is, as we age, our vision and our ability to sense the ground through our shoes are diminished. Also, changes in our strength and flexibility affect our ability to quickly “right ourselves” if we start to fall.
Factors that may hinder our balance and make us more likely to fall include medical issues, physical issues, and cognitive issues.
From a medical standpoint, here are some common reasons a person’s balance is compromised. Arthritis can make it difficult or painful to move around. High or low blood pressure may lead to dizziness. Diabetes can lead to nerve damage and numbness in the feet. Osteoporosis, or brittle bones, makes injury from a fall more likely. Parkinson’s causes a person to have diminishing control over their movements. Stroke or brain injuries affect balance. Even incontinence can cause falls, because the senior may rush to get to a restroom and move too quickly.
Medications are another big issue, with side-effects and interactions. Blood thinners like Coumadin make even the slightest of falls very serious. Sedatives, pain meds and antidepressants can also lead to falls. One way to deal with this issue is to talk to your doctor or pharmacist, keep an updated list of all your medications and post a Vial of Life on the fridge.
Some physical causes of falls include generalized weakness, a simple loss of muscle over time. This...