What Did Experts Learn About Senior Falls During 2017?

Research studies offered new insights — and some surprises.

Woman hugs her senior dad.

Each year, one-third of people older than 65 will fall. Many of these seniors will suffer a fracture, brain damage or other debilitating injury. Each day, an average of 75 older adults will die from the effects of a fall. Falls cost our healthcare system upwards of $30 billion every year.

This is an important topic, and the Caring Right at Home newsletter frequently reports on ways seniors can reduce their risk. We can't emphasize enough that seniors should remove fall hazards from their home, have regular eye exams, wear proper shoes, have their medications reviewed, get plenty of the right kind of exercise, wear their hearing aids, limit alcohol consumption, and talk to the doctor about ways to lower their personal risk factors. Read "The Rate of Senior Falls Is Not Falling" in the September 2017 issue of Caring Right at Home to find a good overview of these risk factors.

A recent Caring Right at Home poll asked readers if they had discussed fall prevention with their older loved ones. While most had done so, many indicated that the conversation had not gone well! Poorly worded discussions about the risk of falls can quickly put senior loved ones on the defensive, feeling as if their competence is being questioned.

For a change of strategy, how about talking about all the research that's happening on this topic? Make it a current-events discussion! Here are some of the new and sometimes surprising findings that can start a conversation while updating your own fall-prevention savvy.

Foot problems are a bigger risk factor than we thought. In May 2017, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health noted that many factors could cause a fall — but if a senior falls again and again, sore feet or flat feet are often the cause. Said associate professor Marian Hannan, "We know that having more than one fall can be of concern. Many don't think of feet as the culprit. However, higher odds of recurrent falls were seen for those with foot pain, especially severe foot pain, as well as those with planus foot posture [flat feet], indicating that both foot pain and foot posture may play a role in falls." Hannan's team says that treating foot problems could significantly reduce fall injuries and loss of independence among older adults.

A car crash can raise your risk of falling — and the reverse also is true. Reduced body strength and flexibility, balance problems, and vision loss make a senior less safe both while driving and while walking. Falls and car accidents are further interrelated: When a senior has a car accident, resulting injuries and emotional trauma can raise their risk of falling. Coming full circle, in September 2017, experts from the AAA Foundation noted that senior drivers who have suffered a fall are then at higher risk of having a car crash, due to the effect of injuries and perhaps inactivity. Fall-protection classes and senior driving classes might be in order to lower the risk all around.

Middle-aged people who fall should schedule an eye exam. In November 2017, University of Michigan researchers noted that while many people consider falls to be a problem exclusive to seniors, in fact, around 10 percent of people between the ages of 40 – 60 also will experience a serious fall. As assistant professor Carrie Karvonen-Gutierrez says, "Do we hit the magic number of 65 years old and suddenly become at risk for falls, whereas we are somehow immune before that? Certainly not." Karvonen-Gutierrez and her team believe that many of these falls are caused by treatable vision problems, such as nearsightedness. They hope to use this research to advocate for increased vision screening among younger people.

The role of medications is a complicated one. A second University of Michigan study, this one from May 2017, examined the relationship between depression, depression medications, and falls. The researchers noted that depression raises the risk of falls — but so do many of the medications often prescribed for older adults with depression. They urged doctors to carefully calibrate a senior's use of these medicines, and to choose nondrug treatments when possible. Another 2017 study, this one from Penn State University, noted that seniors who have poor sleep may get out of bed during the night, which can lead to a fall — yet if the doctor prescribes a sleep medication, that also increases the risk of falls. According to associate professor Orfeu Buxton, these medications "often have side effects that cause problems with balance, memory and situational awareness." Buxton suggests that nondrug approaches to sleep problems, which don't raise the risk of falls, also can be more effective.

It takes seniors only milliseconds longer to realize they're falling — but that makes a difference. In October 2017, researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario noted that it takes seniors twice as long to realize they're falling, as compared to younger adults. Among a group of test subjects, younger adults took 44 milliseconds, while people older than 60 took twice as long — 88 milliseconds. That's less than one-tenth of a second, but, said kinesiology professor Michael Barnett-Cowan, "This lag means that by the time older adults realize they are falling, it's often too late for them to consciously do anything about it. These findings highlight both the importance of adequate assessment for older adults and the need to expedite new prevention technology."

Icy sidewalks don't top the hazard list. Many seniors believe that their greatest risk of a serious fall injury is to slip on an icy surface during the cold days of winter. But they shouldn't let their guard down during summer or when they're indoors. An October 2017 study published by the American Society of Anesthesiologists analyzed the instance of hip fracture, one of the most serious consequences of falls. The data showed that, in fact, more than half of these fractures occurred during warmer months — and more than 75 percent happened indoors. Tripping over a throw rug and falling out of bed were the most common causes. Said study author Dr. Jason Guercio of the Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain, "Given the results of this study, it appears that efforts to decrease fall risk among the elderly living in cold climates should not be preferentially aimed at preventing outdoor fractures in winter, but should focus on conditions present throughout the year, and most importantly on mitigating indoor risk."

There is a lot we can do to lower our risk of falling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that fewer than half of older adults tell their doctor they've fallen, but that information is definitely not something to skip during your next checkup! Talk about your fall history and your personal risk factors, and ask for a "prescription" for fall protection.

Right at Home caregiver with senior client

If your family uses home care to support the well-being of an older loved one, make fall prevention a priority.

A professional caregiver can keep the home free from hazards, and provide supervision and assistance during activities that could be dangerous, such as bathing, navigating stairways, or getting in and out of bed.

Caregivers support overall good health by preparing nutritious meals, taking clients to health appointments, and supervising exercise to promote improved strength and balance.

And though it's impossible to prevent all falls, families can rest easier knowing that if their loved one were to fall, a trained caregiver would be on hand to assist right away.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.