Resources: Senior Health Issues at Hebrew SeniorLife

What is Falling in Old Age

It's hard for a young, vigorous person to imagine that tripping on a rug or a slippery sidewalk could cause a life-threatening injury. But for some older people, it could mean exactly that.

Physical ailments and aging bones, which are more likely to fracture, may make it impossible for an older person to get up after a fall, leading to a greater risk of dehydration, confusion, pneumonia, or even death, particularly if the person lives alone. For others, a pattern of falls may not just be the result of environmental factors, but rather of an underlying medical condition.

Understanding the causes of falls among the elderly and finding ways to prevent them is a major subject of research at the Institute for Aging Research of Hebrew SeniorLife.

What causes older people to fall?

  • Musculoskeletal changes - age can alter an older person's sense of balance and space perception, often causing a "dizzy" sensation.
  • Environmental changes - a loose carpet or a chair out of place can pose hazards.
  • Fainting - common daily activities can result in a dangerous drop in blood pressure, often resulting in loss of consciousness and a fall.
  • Dehydration - acute illnesses or medications can cause dehydration and a drop in blood pressure, leading to fainting and falling.
  • Chronic illnesses - these can cause dizziness, fainting or impaired movement.

Prevention is key

Lewis Lipsitz, M.D., Director of the Institute for Aging Research, a leading authority on falls, offers the following advice for reducing the risk of falling:

  • If you are taking medications to lower your blood pressure, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can take them between meals to avoid a large drop in blood pressure after eating.
  • Take prescribed medications as ordered; do not take extra pills for missed doses. Be careful of medications that may make you drowsy. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about how your medications interact with each other.
  • Wear shoes that fit well and have low heels, and don't walk around in socks or stockings that could make you slip.
  • Have your eyes and ears examined regularly.
  • Ask your doctor about exercises that will improve your strength and endurance. Research at the Institute shows that resistance training builds muscle size and strength, and improves gait and mobility.
  • Use a cane or walker if one has been prescribed, and make sure it is adjusted to your height and used properly.
  • Take safety precautions: keep your home well-lighted, remove scatter rugs, remove or tape down telephone and electrical cords, install grab bars in the shower/tub and next to the toilet, and use a non-skid bath mat in the shower.
  • If you fall, even if you do not hurt yourself, report it to your doctor. If you fall and have trouble getting up, or you think you lost consciousness, call your doctor immediately.

As researchers at Hebrew SeniorLife are able to identify more precisely the mechanisms that trigger fainting and falls, seniors and their caregivers will be able to better predict circumstances that may lead to a fall and develop more effective prevention strategies. The solution to the problem, however, is not simple. Prevention requires an understanding of many gerontological issues, and Institute for Aging Research findings will continue to shape strategies aimed at helping people maintain a good quality of life as they grow old.

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