person's legs walking with a cane in the street via MaybeImaLeo/Shutterstock.com

5 Ways to Prevent Falls in Older Adults

Tripping over a tree branch. Slipping on an area rug. Stumbling on a loose step. When you’re younger, it’s easier to recover your balance before a full-on fall. But as we age, both our sense of balance diminishes and our reflexes slow, making all of those trips, slips, and stumbles potentially dangerous.

Falls are the number one cause of injuries in older adults; more than one in four adults over 65 experience a fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies show that falls can kick off a cascade of medical problems: One in five falls causes a serious injury (like a hip fracture or head injury). Women in their 70s who break a hip double their risk of dying within a year (those age 65-69 are five times more likely to die within a year), and those who recover rarely regain their same level of mobility and independence.

But just because an older person may be at risk for falling, it doesn’t mean they can’t continue to live an active and independent life. Research shows that the risk of falls can be reduced if you take the time to put the right precautions in place. Use this list as a starting point.

1. Get those eyes checked

Regular vision checks can help prevent falls. While you (or your loved one) may still be able to see most things just fine, loss of depth perception is common as we age and could mean the difference between seeing a cord on the floor or missing a step in a stairwell.

The biggest culprit: glaucoma, which causes pressure to build in the eye that can damage the optic nerve, leading to loss of peripheral vision and then complete blindness if not treated. Everyone over the age of 60 is at risk for glaucoma, so it’s important to keep up with regular comprehensive eye exams (that include dilation).

Cataracts, or cloudiness in the lens of the eye, are another source of vision problems. They are very common in older adults—it’s estimated that by age 80, half of all Americans either have a cataract or have already had cataract surgery. Like glaucoma, cataracts can be detected with regular comprehensive eye exams.

2. Add proper support

Look for places throughout your home that could benefit from installing added supports. One key place: the bathroom. Adding grab bars near the toilet and bathtub or shower can provide added security in a slippery environment. Nonslip mats are also helpful to increase stability. In addition to preventing falls, making sure someone can maintain autonomy in bathing and toileting for as long as possible can also help preserve dignity.

For those at high risk for a fall, a cane can help with stability. You can try a simple cane or a four-prong walker, also known as a quad cane.

3. Keep moving

If you’ve recently fallen or are worried that it may happen, the last thing you probably want to do is put yourself in a position to take a spill. But it’s important to stay active. In fact, one recent report revealed that consistent exercise reduced the rates of falls among older adults by 21 percent. The most effective exercise programs aimed at improving balance and involved more than three hours per week (or roughly 25 minutes per day) of exercise.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine has a range of great exercises to help prevent falls, but you should speak to your physician before beginning any new workout program. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking helps; adding balance and core strengthening exercises is also a good idea. Ask your doctor if it makes sense to have a physical therapy consultation to work on gait training, too.

4. Give your home a mini upgrade

A creaky floorboard or wobbly bannister may not have been cause for concern before, but these minor home issues can become a big deal for older people who may need the extra stability. Watch out for potential tripping hazards, from throw rugs to long cords.

Adding bright lights in dimly lit corners or stairways can also improve a person’s ability to get around on their own without fear of falling. Just make sure that these upgrades don’t add new electrical cords or other hazards in walking pathways. Avoid shifting furniture around, especially in rooms or areas where someone might be walking at night.

5. Talk to your doctor

Certain health conditions, ranging from low blood pressure or anemia to Parkinson’s disease or dementia, can mess with your sense of balance and/or increase your fall risk. And some medications, including anti-anxiety meds, sedatives, and anti-depressants, can cause balance problems, dizziness, drowsiness, or other side effects that can raise your chances of falling. Ask your doctor to check your medications as well as doing a bigger-picture evaluation of your fall risk.

Also ask your doctor about strategies to maintain bone and muscle strength, including not only exercise but screening for osteoporosis and checking vitamin D levels. Physical therapy that includes gait training can be beneficial in decreasing risk of falls (and subsequent fractures), too.

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