Every year one in three people over the age of 65 experience a fall. In the best case scenario, these people are able to rise to their feet and go about their lives. But all too often, falls lead to hospitalization and further health consequences. According to Dr. Mary Tinetti, an expert on falls at Yale University’s School of Medicine, falling is “as serious as heart attacks or strokes” for the elderly population.
Tinetti’s research on fall prevention has earned her national attention. In 2011 she received a MacArthuer Genius Grant – a $500,000 award in recognition of her influence in the field and potential for further research. Her approach to fall prevention emphasizes “universal treatments for individuals.” The idea is to treat the individual as a whole, rather than a collection of symptoms. Dr. Tinetti believes that seniors and their families, in consultation with a doctor, have it in their power to adopt safety measures and to reduce the risk of falling.
Seniors know better than anyone what puts them at risk for falls. Experts advocate teaming up with a doctor to make a multi-faceted fall-prevention plan. Tinetti’s decades of research has shown that a person’s likelihood of falling increases with the addition of certain risk factors, listed below:
Medications: Seniors who take four or more medications increase their risk for falls. Medications can cause dizziness and loss of balance. When multiple medications interact, they can intensify the side effects. Talk to your doctor about reassessing your medications if you feel they are making you dizzy or affecting movement.
Fear: People who are afraid of falling put themselves at increased risk. Being too afraid to walk or exercise will keep you from strengthening your legs and improving balance. Rather than stopping all movement, talk to your doctor about safe exercise options so you can reduce your risks of falling in the future.
Problems with Mobility: Slowness or a reduced range of movement can compromise balance and put you at risk for tripping. Reduced mobility can occur in the aftermath of a stroke or as a symptom of arthritis or Parkinson’s disease.
Vision or Hearing Loss: Hearing and visual problems can affect balance as much as arthritis or weakened legs. If you’ve been putting off cataract surgery or your next eye exam, remember that neglecting one health problem can have ramifications all around.
Environmental Hazards: Make sure your environment is a “fall-safe” zone. Get rid of stray electrical cords, clutter or other tripping hazards. Improved lighting can also help prevent you from tripping over unseen objects. Consider using a shower chair and installing grab bars to prevent slipping. In some cases, your doctor or physical therapist might suggest a cane or walker.
Risk factors, once identified, can be addressed and eliminated in consultation with a health care provider. Elimination of these risk factors can decrease a person’s risk for falling and fall-related injuries by as much as 30%.
How to Improve Balance
A regular routine of walking strengthens leg muscles and improves overall coordination. Your doctor might suggest using a walker for safety. Walking is also great for cardiovascular health and can eliminate other health risks.
Recently many have turned to the ancient art of Tai Chi to improve balance. The Lexington Senior Center will offer classes on Wednesdays this month, from 1:30 to 2:30 pm. Practitioners of Tai Chi focus on shifting balance from one part of their body to the other, lifting feet, and becoming more aware of how their bodies move and transfer energy. According to the Center for Disease Control, the practice of Tai Chi relaxes the body and lowers the center of gravity. Over time this increases sensation and responsiveness in the lower limbs, improving balance and coordination.
Dance offers a wide range of health benefits: socialization, physical expression and cardiovascular exercise. Dance is a weight bearing exercise that strengthens bones, improves coordination and reduces falls. If you’re interested in adding dance to your exercise routine, the Lexington Senior Center offers line dancing classes for $3, on Thursdays, from 1:30 to 2:30 pm. They also offer a Zumba Gold class for $5, on Tuesday from 1:30 to 2:30 PM. Zumba Gold uses Latin-based dance rhythms to get your body moving and your heart pumping. It’s fun, accessible and specially tailored for seniors. Give it a try!