As Americans get older, their tendency to fall and trip more easily seems like a no-brainer.
Their bodies aren’t as strong. Coordination, too, begins to falter.
But as the average life expectancy continues to increase year after year, many seniors also are defying the activity-level boundaries set by their predecessors.
Although they no longer are content to sit around the house, they still are at risk for fall injuries – even if less serious than those of their less active counterparts.
“Healthy people do not usually fall and break their hips,” said Dr. Shawn Palmer, an orthopedic surgeon with the Midwest Bone and Joint Institute in Barrington.
“The more vibrant 80-year-old tends to fall and have injuries like you or I would.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three seniors in the United States falls each year. Every 18 seconds, an elderly adult is treated in an emergency room for a fall, and every 35 minutes, someone dies as a result of their fall injuries.
To better educate the local senior population on how to prevent falls and other disasters, Crystal Lake Fire Lt. Joyce Stevenson is hosting public sessions on making their homes and lifestyles safer.
Stevenson recently began tracking the amount of fall-related emergency calls that the department has received. In the first four months of this year, the majority of the 170 fall victims were seniors ages 50 and older.
“Depending on their physical condition, they can be a 70-year-old who is healthy,” Stevenson added.
She said she advises seniors to clear pathways and exits in the home, as well as install proper lighting and safety devices, such as grab bars in bathrooms. Slip-on shoes, while convenient and comfortable, destabilize the wearer’s footing.
“It’s like a head-rush kind of a situation,” Stevenson said. “They stand up too quickly, they hurry, and they trip.”
Palmer said balance therapy helps as a person ages to improve muscle strength and stability.
But a senior who uses medications also might be at greater risk for falls because of associated decreases in heart rates and blood pressure, Palmer said.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” he noted.
Bone-related injuries, such as wrist or ankle fractures, take six to eight weeks to heal. Returning to normal activities usually takes six to nine months.
But, Palmer said, “the geriatric patient who falls and fractures their hip usually doesn’t heal to their original function ever.”
Dr. Marko Krpan, an orthopedic surgeon with Mercy Health System, said patients without health problems such as diabetes or heart disease will heal faster from fall injuries than others.
“Probably one of the best things is that seniors are staying active longer,” Krpan said. “It improves strength, coordination.”
That goes along with one of Krpan’s tips that he gives to all his patients, no matter their age – exercise. In older adults, strengthening exercises, such as walking or bicycling, are effective and increase bone density and quality.
“Physical activity promotes not only a better physical feeling and mental aspect,” he said, “but you do more things socially.”
Where to turn
If you experience a fall, call 911 immediately. Make sure that your home is properly marked so emergency personnel can locate your address more quickly.
To learn about fall awareness, attend one of the following seminars hosted by Crystal Lake Fire Lt. Joyce Stevenson in Room P105-P106 of the Crystal Lake Municipal Complex, 100 W. Woodstock St.: 10 a.m. Sept. 23; 1 p.m. Oct. 14; 10 a.m. Nov. 12.
• More than one-third of adults 65 and older fall each year in the United States.
• Most fractures among older adults are caused by falls. In that same demographic, falls also are the leading cause of injury-related deaths.
• The risk of being seriously injured in a fall increases with age. In 2001, the rates of fall injuries for adults 85 and older were four to five times that of adults 65 to 74.
• People 75 and older who fall are four to five times more likely to be admitted to a long-term care facility for a year or longer.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention