By Latha Raja Shankar, M.D., MBA, Chief Medical Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico
Why do falls matter?
Falls are a threat to the health of older adults and can reduce the ability to remain independent. Falls are dangerous and costly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one in four older adults fall each year in the United States. Falling once doubles the chances of falling again. In 2019, falls caused over 34,000 deaths among adults 65 and older, making it the leading cause of injury death for that age group. The same year, emergency departments recorded 3 million visits for older adult falls. Older adult falls cost $50 billion in medical costs annually.
Can falls be prevented?
There are proven ways to reduce and prevent falls. Falls don’t have to be an inevitable part of aging. You can reduce your chance of falling or help a loved one prevent falls. Falls are generally caused by a combination of risk factors. Your health care provider can help identify those risk factors and help you reduce the risk of falling. Community programs are available and offered by the New Mexico Department of Health. Your health care provider can help you select and participate in a program that best suits your needs.
What puts you at risk for falls?
Use of medicines — such as tranquilizers, sedatives, antidepressants, antihypertensives, and even some over-the-counter medicines — can affect balance and increase the risk of falling. Vision problems and foot problems, including improper footwear, increase fall risk. Difficulties with walking, balance, lower body weakness, and vitamin D deficiency increase fall risk. Home hazards or dangers, such as broken or uneven steps and throw rugs or clutter that can be tripped over, increase fall risk.
What can you do to prevent falls?
- Talk to your doctor. More than half of older adults who fall do not talk about the fall to their doctors. Talk to your doctor if you feel unsteady or if you worry about falling. Discuss your medications, including over-the-counter medications, with your doctor. Tell your doctor right away if you fall. Talk to your doctor about safe exercises to prevent falls. Discuss bone health. Your doctor has resources to help you with fall prevention.
- Check with your doctor about a safe exercise program for you. The New Mexico Department of Health has programs such as “Tai Chi for Arthritis,” “Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance,” “A Matter of Balance: Managing Concerns About Falls” and “Otago,” an exercise program facilitated by a physical therapist, to help prevent falls.
- Take care of your vision and feet. Discuss your vision needs and foot care, including proper footwear, with your doctor. Wear well-fitting shoes with good support inside and outside the house.
- Make your home safer. Remove things you can trip over — such as papers, books, clothes, and shoes — from stairs and places where you walk. Remove small throw rugs or use double-sided tape to keep the rugs from slipping. Keep items you use often in cabinets you can reach easily without using a step stool. Have grab bars put in next to and inside the tub and next to the toilet. Use non-slip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors. Improve the lighting in your home. Have handrails and lights installed on all staircases.
What are some resources for fall prevention?
Visit https://www.nmhealth.org/ to learn more about the New Mexico Department of Health’s prevention programs. For fall prevention resources from the CDC, go to https://www.cdc.gov/steadi/patient.html. You can also find information about fall prevention programs at https://www.pathstohealthnm.org/.
If you have a health question that you would like to be considered in Ask a Health Care Professional, please email [email protected]. BCBSNM will select questions that may appear. Questions will not be personally answered. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of BCBSNM. This column is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical care.