Many factors put seniors at a higher risk of falling. “As people age, they become slightly weaker, and they change the way they walk — their gait changes,” says Paul Adams, Senior Director of Product Management for Philips Lifeline. “They tend to lean forward and bend their knees and shuffle. And when you change the way you walk, you expose yourself to a greater risk of falling.”
Naturally, our reflexes slow down, we lose muscle mass, and our vision may not be as acute, causing us to misjudge depths and distances. Over time, these physical changes can compound and lead to a risk of falling. But the presence of a chronic condition, such as heart disease, diabetes, cognitive impairment, COPD, or arthritis, can multiply the risk.
These chronic conditions often cause loss of balance, neuropathy, painful joints or moments of disorientation. Peripherally, medications commonly prescribed to treat chronic health conditions may have side effects such as dizziness or lightheadedness — other risk factors for falling.
A Closer Look at Chronic Health Conditions and Falls
Through our own research, we found that seniors with chronic conditions fell up to 40 percent more often than those with no chronic health conditions. And when you look at the senior population, 80 percent has at least one chronic health condition and 68 percent has two or more, according to the National Council on Aging. That is a large population of people at risk for serious falls and resulting injuries.
And not all health conditions affect fall risk equally. Our data shows that seniors with osteoporosis, cognitive impairment like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, COPD and heart disease fell more often. As these are common ailments for seniors, what can people do to prevent and protect themselves from falls?
Chronic health conditions can also contribute to lapses in sensory feedback — the communication that takes place between our vast network of nerves and our brain, explains Dr. Bijan Najafi, Professor of Surgery, Medicine and Engineering at The University of Arizona and Director of iCAMP.
“Because of aging or some other chronic condition, the brain can stop receiving proper signals from the nerves,” Dr. Najafi says. “This creates a problem because if we lose the accurate perception of our position in a space, we can easily trip.”
Don’t Let Health Problems Stop You in Your Tracks
Eliminating your favorite activities isn’t the answer to avoiding the pitfalls that accompany physical decline. In fact, being sedentary will only compound the risk of falling.
“Ultimately, a persistent lack of mobility will cause muscle loss and will reduce a person’s ability to maintain balance, particularly in challenging conditions,” Dr. Najafi says.
One step in the right direction is to keep moving. Pilates, in particular, benefits balance, according to a recent study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, because it helps to reestablish brain-body communication. Other doctor-recommended exercises for seniors that target endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility can help you (or your loved one) rise above some of the risk factors and live a healthier, more fulfilling life.
“Research shows that we retain our ability to increase muscle volume as we age — even above age 90,” says Adams. “If you choose to do nothing, you’ll lose muscle tissue, but with relatively simple exercises you can increase muscle strength.”
Peace of Mind with PERS
No one is immune to falls. Personal emergency response systems (PERS), or medical alert devices, offer peace of mind by providing a means to immediately call for help. Users press a button, typically worn as a pendant or wrist strap, which transmits a signal to a response center representative, who contacts appropriate help.
A PERS can reduce the risk of complications from “lie time” — the length of time you remain on the ground after a fall. “There’s a clear correlation between length of time on the ground and severity of injury,” Adams says. “There could be internal bleeding, pressure sores could develop from lying in one position, and if someone falls taking the garbage out in mid-winter in Massachusetts, they could suffer from hypothermia.”
Philips Lifeline offers devices that can summon help with the press of a button, can detect when a fall has occurred even if the button is never pressed, and can pinpoint the location of the person who has fallen, using the latest locator technology.
“Surrounding seniors with services, information and devices that support them, guide them and keep them safe is incredibly important,” Adams adds. “Much of the work we’re doing at Lifeline is involving a broader picture of what it means to age and what it means to age well.”