Did you know that falls are the leading cause of injury and death among seniors?
Each year, 3 million older adults are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries. And, with the number of Americans aged 65 and above on the rise, we can anticipate the number of fall injuries and their treatment costs to rise.
That’s why all seniors need to be aware of the different fall risk factors and how to reduce their risk of falling.
What are the 2 fall risk factors?
- Intrinsic risk factors
- Extrinsic risk factors
Intrinsic Fall Risk Factors
Intrinsic fall risk factors are those that cannot be controlled or changed by the environment.
Some examples of intrinsic fall risk factors include age, muscle strength, and balance. Studies have shown that intrinsic fall risk factors are some of the most important predictors of future falls.
For seniors, age is the most important intrinsic fall risk factor for falls. As we age, we lose muscle mass and bone density, which leads to a decline in strength and balance.
Age aside, the other common intrinsic fall risk factors for seniors are:
- Sensory Impairments – impaired vision, reduced depth perception, impaired sensation in the legs and feet.
- Musculoskeletal Issues – muscle weakness, joint aches and pains, stiff joints, and tight muscles.
- Neuromuscular Decline – slower reaction time and reflexes.
- Walking and Balance Problems – slow walking speed, impaired balance, difficulty getting up from a chair.
- Medical conditions – incontinence, stroke, arthritis, Parkinson’s, low blood pressure upon standing, etc.
- Medications – polypharmacy (taking 4 or more medications), sedatives, antidepressants, heart medications.
Extrinsic Fall Risk Factors
Other than the intrinsic risk factors listed above, there are many things outside of your body that can cause you to fall.
This includes things that many people do, like playing sports, and also the environment around them, like slippery floors.
If you add in some things that make a person more likely to fall, like if they’re weak or have a medical condition (intrinsic fall risk factors), then the risk of falling goes up even higher.
For example, minor environmental risks that can be readily avoided by a healthy individual may become major barriers to mobility and safety for someone with walking or balance difficulties.
In this article, I provide examples of effective fall prevention strategies.
Situational and external circumstances may be the most important risk factors in healthy, active older persons.
These extrinsic fall risk factors include:
- High fall-risk activities – climbing ladders, hurrying or running.
- Environmental hazards – slippery floors, clutter, or debris on the floor, cracked, or uneven surfaces.
- Inadequate lighting – dim or poorly-lit hallways, bathrooms, driveways, etc.
- Ill-fitting footwear or assistive device – an inappropriate assistive device for walking (cane, walker, etc.), inadequate grip at the sole of the shoes.
- Poorly-designed environment – no grab bars available in the bathroom, no handrails available beside the stairs, uneven step height, etc.
How to prevent or minimize your fall risk factors?
1. Focused exercise and strength training programs
Many studies have found that muscle weakness is a big predictor of falls among seniors.
According to The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, properly designed resistance training programs can improve mobility, physical functioning, performance in activities of daily living (ADL), and preserve the independence of older adults.
And, a growing body of evidence also points out that seniors respond favorably to focused exercise and strength training programs.
As a senior, your response to exercise (which may include greater muscular strength and bulk, as well as increased aerobic capacity) can be seen up until very old ages and severe frailty!
2. Balance or Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy
If you have balance problems, include specific exercises that are designed to retrain the brain, improve balance, and help prevent falls.
Motor coordination and proprioception training are also used to help people with balance issues, as well as treatments for those who have problems walking.
3. Medication Management
Talk to your doctor about the side effects of the medications you are taking and that may be affecting your balance and equilibrium.
Consult with your doctor if he/she can adjust the schedule, dosage, or frequency of your medications to minimize your risk of falling.
The resource guide below includes a list of medications that could potentially affect your balance and increase your risk of falling:
See if the medications you are taking are on the list and bring the list with you to discuss with your doctor.
4. Environmental Modifications
There are a lot of things that can make a home and community unsafe.
Some things are easy to fix, like making sure there is good lighting. Other things, like repairing stairways, sidewalks, or driveways, might be a little harder but are still important.
Sometimes, simple fixes like wearing safe shoes and using grab bars in the bathroom can save you from injuries and catastrophic falls!
5. Comprehensive or Multi-Factorial Balance Programs
Oftentimes, falling is a multifactorial problem.
As you have learned, there are many different factors that can influence your risk of falling, both intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external).
This means that the most successful treatment approach should include and address these many different types of risk factors as well.
If you are looking for a comprehensive balance program that you can follow in the comfort of your own home, check out this online course.
What to do next?
Falling is not synonymous with aging.
On the contrary, old age should be a productive stage of your life where you now have the extraordinary opportunity to apply and enjoy the lessons you’ve learned in your youth.
As the singer David Bowie once said, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.”
Don’t let balance problems and fear of falling stop you from fully participating in life.
You can do something about it.
‘Til then, stay healthy and live fully!
Dr. Lex Gonzales, PT, DPT is an author and speaker who has been a physical/physiotherapist for over 24 years. On drlexgonzales.com he provides quality information and practical solutions you can use to improve your health and function.