Getting older can mean making small changes to maintain your health. Many seniors make lifestyle changes like limiting red meat, cutting down on alcohol and getting more exercise during the week. While many people are familiar with these types of lifestyle changes, one area is often overlooked – fall prevention.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year 3 million Americans aged 65 or older must seek help in an emergency room after a fall. Of that number, about 700,000 need to be admitted to the hospital.
Let’s take a moment to go over common risks for falling, tips for senior fall prevention and when to talk to your doctor about your risk of falling.
Factors that increase your risk of falling
Understanding what puts you at risk for an accident is the first step to prevention. Here are some common factors that may increase your risk of falling.
The risk of falling is greater with age
Older adults are more likely to experience falls that result in a severe injury. In fact, falls are one of the leading causes of fatal injuries among adults aged 65 and older. While this is a staggering statistic, it’s important to keep in mind that falls are often preventable.
As we age, our bodies change in ways that can increase our chances of falling. For instance, reaction time gets slower, joint flexibility decreases and gait and stride length change. It’s also common to lose bone density. This means that our bones become more fragile over time, so a simple slip on the ice or missing that last stair can result in a broken bone or head injury. In fact, more than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falls.
The aging brain also has a slower response to position changes and sense of position while moving, turning or rising. This can easily throw off our balance, and even with glasses, our visual perception and ability to discern surface levels gets a little bit harder.
Falls can also affect mental health. If you’re injured in a fall, you might have difficulty recovering or not be as mobile as you were before your injury. It’s also common for those who have fallen to develop a fear of doing so again, keeping you from moving throughout the day and doing the things you love. This can cause depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation and boredom.
Certain medicines can increase your chance of falling
Many medicines can affect your alertness, gait and balance. In most cases, the more types of medicines you take, the more likely it is that they will cause side effects that can make you more likely to fall.
As you get older, there’s a higher chance of developing high blood pressure (hypertension) and other heart conditions. Anti-hypertensive medicines are often prescribed to keep blood pressure levels under control and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. However, these medicines may cause your blood pressure to drop too low. When blood pressure is too low, you may feel faint or light-headed, making you more likely to fall.
There are also several medicines your doctor might prescribe that can suppress your central nervous system. When the central nervous system is suppressed, you’ll feel less alert, move more slowly and have slower reaction times. Some types of anti-anxiety medicines, prescription sleep aids, narcotic pain medicines (like oxycodone or Dilaudid), antidepressants, antihistamines and medicines used to treat an overactive bladder can increase your risk of falls. It's also important to remember that drinking alcohol while taking any of these medicines might increase that risk even more.
Chronic health conditions can limit mobility
Some chronic health conditions can affect your balance in unexpected ways. If you have diabetes, low blood pressure, osteoporosis, arthritis, a history of stroke, or vision and hearing loss, you’re at a higher risk of falling. In fact, having multiple chronic health conditions increases your risk of falling even more.
The National Council on Aging reports that 67% of people in fall prevention treatment programs report having more than one chronic health issue. The most common health conditions reported are arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.
Getting the proper care to help you manage your conditions can help manage your fall risk. This means regular visits with your doctor, who can help you keep your treatments up to date.
A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to falls
When you don’t move often, it can lead to muscle weakness and slower reflexes. Exercising and stretching regularly will help you build strength and will also improve your balance and coordination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that seniors (adults aged 65 and older) get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week.
Low levels of vitamin D increase risk of falls
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that helps regulate calcium and protein in the muscles. When you don’t get enough vitamin D, you can develop muscle weakness, poor balance and other health issues. Doctors have found that low levels of vitamin D often lead to a higher risk of falling for seniors.
Poor eyesight, blindness and vision changes
Changes to your eyesight might make it more difficult for you to see tripping hazards that might be in your way. Make sure you’re getting your vision checked at least once a year – many of us are affected by unexpected eyesight changes at some point during our lives. Also make sure to update your glasses or contact lenses if your prescription changes. But what about cost? Most Americans over 65 are on Medicare, and Original Medicare typically doesn’t cover vision services. However, it may do so under specific circumstances where vision care is considered medically necessary. This can include annual eye exams for those with diabetes or Medicare coverage of cataract surgery.
Fall prevention tips for seniors
We’ve talked a bit about what conditions may lead up to a fall, but what about things you can do to prevent them? Here are some healthy habits, lifestyle changes and techniques you can use to decrease your risk of falling.
Review your medicines with your doctor
When you’re prescribed a new type of medicine, make sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist about the side effects. If you’re taking several, consider making an appointment with a medication therapy management (MTM) pharmacist.
An MTM pharmacist will help you make sure that your medicines are working together as they should so you can feel your best. They work hand-in-hand with your doctor and other members of your care team. And they can often even find lower cost options for the medicines you’ve been prescribed.
Get regular exercise to build strength
Aging doesn’t have to slow you down! In fact, moving your muscles is important for fall prevention. Adults at every age need exercise, and this doesn’t mean intense physical activity. Even taking small steps to be more active throughout the day can lead to big improvements in your health.
Try starting simple, like walking a bit more every day. And remember to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program – they’ll be able to help you figure out what kind of physical activity will work best for you. No matter what your age, you can always improve your strength and balance.
Common forms of exercise for seniors that you can also explore include:
- Aerobic exercise improves energy levels and gets your blood flowing. Try walking, biking, riding a stationary bike or swimming. Do these activities for 20-30 minutes or more at least three to four times a week. Aerobic activities build muscles and improve blood flow, joint flexibility, balance and memory.
- Strengthening exercises keep your muscles strong. You can build strength with small handheld weights or elastic bands at home or at a gym.
- Balance training is an essential way to reduce your risk of falling. Try classes in Tai Chi or yoga. Or do a variety of standing and sitting exercises that improve stability.
For those enrolled in a Medicare plan, you may have access to additional perks, such as a fitness club membership or home exercise kit, that can help you stay fit at no extra cost.
Most HealthPartners Medicare plans include a fitness benefit to help you reach your fitness goals.
Eat a healthy diet
A well-balanced diet is important for overall health – especially for your bones. As we mentioned, it’s common for bones to weaken with age. A calcium-rich diet, or adding daily vitamin D or calcium supplements to your routine, can go a long way. In most cases, the recommended daily amount of vitamin D for adults 70+ is 800 IU – and for calcium, that recommendation is 1,200mg. Ask your doctor about your vitamin D and calcium levels and if supplements are right for you.
Another nutrient you can focus on is protein, which is great for muscle-building and energy. Vegetables and fruits, especially leafy greens and dark berries, provide vitamins, minerals and fiber that make you stronger and prevent diseases.
Make your environment safe – inside and out
There are a lot of changes you can make to your daily habits as well as your environment that can decrease your chances of falling. Here are a few places to start.
- Wear comfortable, sturdy shoes that fit well. Look for shoes with low heels and a nice tread on the soles and wear them whether you’re indoors or outdoors. This keeps you balanced and less likely to turn your foot if you step on something.
- Try a mobility aid. If your doctor or physical therapist suggests you use a cane or walker, give it a try. It can help you move around with better stability.
- Clear the clutter. Make sure your hallways, stairways and living areas are free of obstructions, cords and loose rugs. This way, you’re less likely to trip while going about your daily routine.
- Add lighting in all areas. The better you see, the better you can navigate your surroundings. Use a night light so you can see where you’re walking when it’s dark.
- Add safety items to the bathroom. The bathroom is the most common room in the house for falls. Install grab bars and a bench to help you enter or exit the tub or shower with better support. Use a raised height toilet. Add non-slip rugs or decals to surfaces that get wet.
- Keep a tidy outdoor space. Make sure your sidewalks don’t have uneven cracks. Keep your lawn cleared of rocks and sticks. Be cautious about stepping on or off curbs at the road.
Find support from family or other caregivers
There’s no harm in asking for a little help – we all do from time to time. If you live on your own, make sure you have a family member or caregiver check in on you regularly.
You can ask them to help with your home assessment and install safety measures. Invite them to join you in exercising to stay active. If you’re having trouble eating properly, ask for help with grocery shopping or meal preparation to get the right nourishment.
Join a fall prevention and balance program
If you need a little bit more support with fall prevention, you have options. Our TRIA Fall Prevention and Balance Program helps seniors prevent falls and move with confidence. This program was created for adults 65 and older, and it is the best fit for seniors who are unsteady while moving.
During this physical therapist-guided program, you can work on exercises, stretches and specialized training to improve your balance, strength and coordination. One session typically lasts an hour and will help you stay active, independent and strong as you age.
If you live in Minnesota, you can also look into Juniper classes. This program, offered by the state, can help you get stronger and improve your balance for little to no cost.
Talk to your doctor about how to prevent falls
Your Medicare Annual Wellness Visit is a great time to talk with your doctor about fall prevention. You can discuss any concerns you might have, focusing on balance, strength and the ability to move around your home or outdoors.
During this time, your doctor can assess your risk for falling and give you tips for preventing falls based on your individual needs. This may include a review of your medicines and possible side effects, overall bone strength, any vision impairments you may have and much more.
How caregivers can intervene to prevent falls for older adults
Even if you’re not a senior at risk of falling, you may have someone in your life who is susceptible. What can you do, as a caregiver, to help prevent a fall for your loved one? Here are some considerations to help you get started:
- Visit your loved one’s home and look for hazards. This might include ground-level obstructions, like clutter, furniture placed directly in or near frequently used walkways and uneven flooring. Oftentimes, keeping a neat, walkable area comes down to organization. You can help your family member reorganize cluttered areas with clearly labeled bins and tubs, so everything has a home.
- Help your family member add handles around their home. Mobility aids aren’t always walkers and wheelchairs – a sturdy handle or an assistance bar can do a lot of work. Some of the best places to start are in the bathroom or kitchen where mobility issues can be especially challenging. Consider installing shower bars, a toilet safety rail or larger handles on cabinets for better access.
- Make sure walkways outside are ice-free. If you live in a place with winter weather, snow can be a huge concern. Keep a container of salt or cat litter near the front door of your loved one’s home. You can help keep walkways safe by sprinkling some around when you visit. If your relative lives in an apartment building or another type of communal living situation, you can call their property manager to see what’s being done to keep older tenants safe.
- Sign your loved one up for an emergency response service. There are many services (maybe you’ve heard of Life Alert) that can help seniors get quick, easy access to emergency assistance if they fall or experience another type of emergency. These days, tech has made things easier. If your loved one has a smartphone, encourage them to always keep it close. You can even help them find an easy-to-use emergency app for seniors or preprogram emergency numbers into their contacts or add as shortcuts to their smartphone home screens.
- Ensure your relative gets the care they need before there’s a problem. This includes getting their eyes checked every year and seeing a physical therapist if they aren’t moving well.
Getting answers with your HealthPartners Medicare plan
Are you already enrolled in a HealthPartners Medicare plan? If so, you have access to an extensive provider network that includes providers who can assist you in fall prevention.