Sarcopenia, a natural part of the aging process, can reduce muscle mass in physically inactive people by 3 percent to 5 percent each decade starting at age 30. Even people who remain active will still experience some muscle loss.
And when muscle weakness caused by sarcopenia is compounded by the degenerative effects of osteoarthritis and/or osteoporosis, the potential to fall is magnified. In fact, Philips Lifeline data shows that seniors with osteoporosis fell 37 percent more than those who do not have a chronic health condition.
“The risk for falling that occurs with osteoarthritis patients is due to a number of different problems,” says Dr. Nathan Wei, Director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland. “The first is sarcopenia, which causes weakness. Obviously, if your legs are weak, you’re going to be more prone to falls.”
Other arthritis-related risk factors include neuropathy, cataracts, and spinal stenosis.
“Neuropathy is a problem with the nerves that govern balance, coordination and gait,” Dr. Wei explains. “Neuropathy developed as a result of osteoarthritis can cause falls, because your ability to remain upright and to walk properly is highly dependent on your body’s ability to feel where you are in space.”
While osteoarthritis typically targets the knees, hips and spine, eyes can also suffer from its inflammatory effects, and some medications have been linked to the development of cataracts. Clearly, any vision impairment puts people at a higher risk of falling.
Spinal stenosis, which is arthritis in the spine, and leg-length inequality caused by joint replacement surgery are other arthritis-related complications that can cause difficulty walking and balancing.
The good news is, a lot of these risk factors can be mitigated and even prevented.
Find Relief in Motion
Breaking the cycle of sarcopenia is a critical first step.
“I stress to my patients that it really is in their hands if they want to avoid some of these devastating complications,” says Dr. Wei. “The patients who have either osteoarthritis or osteoporosis who take up that challenge and say, ‘OK, I’m going to do something about this,’ begin to exercise more and do resistance training, and they can reverse sarcopenia.”
Remaining vigilant and communicating clearly with your doctor are also key, he advises, because certain medications used to treat osteoarthritis and osteoporosis can contribute to falls. For example, NSAI drugs often prescribed for both conditions can lead to anemia, and some antidepressants approved for pain relief can cause people to feel agitated or anxious.
“Patients should contact their physicians if any medication makes them feel dizzy or off balance,” Dr. Wei recommends. “Speak up and take charge. It’s your body, not the doctor’s.”
Paul Adams, Senior Director of Product Management for Philips Lifeline, is confident that a growing number of seniors will follow the advice to take charge.
“I think we’re going to see a change in ownership and urgency to be an informed senior, even among those with chronic conditions,” Adams says. “We’re going to see more people saying, ‘I’m going to own this. I’m going to manage it.’ Wearable technologies like Fitbits are examples of people having an appetite for guidance and education, and for being part of their care management.”
Wearables for Confidence & Security
The potential to fall can never be completely eliminated. Personal emergency response systems (PERS), like Lifeline’s medical alert devices, put the power to summon help at the user’s fingertips. Typically worn as a pendant or as a wrist band, PERS devices can give seniors the confidence to remain safely active as they take charge of their health.
“Philips offers a number of tools and services that we think will help seniors stay at home, living their lives the way they want to live them, for longer,” Adams adds.