A fall at any age can be dangerous, but falls become increasingly common and far more likely to cause injury after the age of 55.
Approximately 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 will fall in any one year. Of these, 4% end up in hospital and 1% suffer a hip fracture.
Falls can have devastating consequences for older adults, particularly those living alone. Along with serious injury or fractures, people face a possible loss of independence and a knock to their confidence too. Falls are also the leading cause of death from unintentional injury for both males and females aged over 75 years.
What is the fall cycle?
Some people, especially those who have had a fall, restrict what they do because of a fear of falling. While this sounds sensible, reduced activity actually puts you at a greater risk of falling. This is because it causes you to lose muscle strength and coordination. So, it is important to keep up activities you enjoy, as safely as possible – 'the more you do, the more you can do’.
Why are falls more common with age?
Health conditions that can increase your risk of falling may be hard to notice by yourself. Regular check-ups with your doctor are a good way to spot them.
Factors involved in why falls occur include:
- poor leg strength and impaired balance
- side effects from your medications
- other medical conditions
- eyesight problems
- nutritional deficiencies
- hazards around the home environment.
Tips to prevent falls
Each year about one-third of all New Zealanders over age 65 will fall. Many of these falls result in broken bones. You can play a role in preventing falls. Look after yourself by:
- Lack of exercise can lead to weak legs, which increases the chances of falling.
- Any increased exercise is helpful. Start with 5 minutes a day and build up.
- Exercise programmes that increase strength and improve balance, such as Tai Chi are very good.
- Check with your doctor first before starting a strenuous exercise programme.
Being mindful of medications
- Medications, or combinations of medications, may have side effects, which can increase the risk of falls.
- Have your doctor or pharmacist review all your medications for any side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness.
- Ask if there are any that can be reduced or stopped.
- As we get older and need more medications, taking them correctly gets harder.
- Work out a system to make sure you take the right tablets at the right time.
Keeping your vision sharp
- Poor vision can make it harder to get around safely.
- Have your eyes checked every year and wear glasses or contact lenses with the right prescription strength.
Removing hazards at home
- About half of all falls happen at home.
- Make your home safer by reducing tripping hazards and clutter, adding hand-rails and improving lighting.
Personal medical alarms
People at risk of falls, or those who have had a fall in the past, may find it useful to have a medical alarm. These can make it easier to remain independent and continue living in your own home, especially if you live alone.
Medical alarms are usually worn as a pendant or wristband, which can be activated to call for assistance if you have a fall and require medical help but are unable to get to the phone. This is a safeguard for people wanting to continue with everyday life around the home and garden. It can also offer peace of mind for family members about your ongoing safety.
What to do if you have a fall
If you have a fall at home:
- Stay calm and decide whether to try to get up.
If you can get up:
- Bend your knees up, roll onto your side, then push up onto all-fours.
- Crawl towards a sturdy chair.
- Use this support to help get yourself seated.
- Rest at any time, if necessary, and then try again.
Medical alarms, keeping the phone near ground level and giving friends a spare key are useful precautions you can make in case one day you cannot get up from a fall.
Exercises to prevent falls
Regular exercise is important in preventing falls. Benefits include improved balance, muscle strength and flexibility; stronger bones; more energy; better sleep; and better control of blood pressure, blood sugar and weight. General fitness can be improved by walking for 30 minutes most days of the week (or three 10-minute walks). It should make you breathe harder, but you should still be able to speak easily.
Programmes designed specifically for balance and muscle strength have been shown to reduce the number of falls and injuries resulting from falls by between 30% and 50%. Modified Tai Chi classes are some of the most common ones. Tai Chi is a gentle, controlled series of movements that help you develop strength, flexibility and balance.
Whatever you do to prevent falls, a positive approach will account for much of the progress.
Falls prevention Agewell (NZ), 2015
Physical activity for older people Agewell (NZ), 2015
Slips, trips and falls National Safety Council, (US)
How safe is your home ACC (NZ), 2009
Age-related physical activity Ministry of Health (NZ), 2014