By Erica Thursz-Rivera, PA-C
Regional lead, Optum NM Osteoarthritis Program
For millions of older Americans, falls are a serious concern. In fact, more than 3 million seniors in the U.S. need emergency treatment as a result of a fall every year.
Nobody wants to experience a fall, but for older adults, falls pose significant health risks. Fall-related injuries can range from broken bones to head injuries that can lead to long-term effects on a person’s independence. Even though a single fall is by no means guaranteed to cause an injury, falling once can double the chances of falling again.
Most alarmingly, falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among seniors nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are also the leading cause of accidental, injury-related deaths among adults 65 and older in New Mexico. In 2020, more than a third of older New Mexicans experienced a fall, and in 2021, there were 91 fall-related deaths per 100,000 New Mexico residents.
Risks and Prevention
The most immediate risk with a fall is a physical injury that seriously impacts personal independence. Even if a fall does not result in injury, it can have an emotional and mental impact, leading to an unfortunate cycle in which falling once causes a fear of falling again. This fear can in turn lead to withdrawing from regular, everyday activities. Reduced physical activity can cause weakness, which can then make it easier to experience another fall.
Research suggests several risk factors can contribute to the likelihood of suffering a fall. Fortunately, there are some simple steps to mitigate those risks:
- Foot problems, or, more specifically, choice of footwear can increase risk. Wearing shoes with non-skid soles and avoiding stairs while wearing just socks can decrease the likelihood of falling.
- Vision problems contribute to falls, so it is important to schedule regular eye doctor appointments and to ensure prescriptions for glasses and contact lenses are up to date. Also, keep in mind that bifocals and progressive lenses can sometimes distort the distance of things like floors and stairs.
- Certain medications — like sedatives, antidepressants and some common over-the-counter drugs — can affect balance. It’s important to discuss medications with a health care provider, especially if you’ve experienced dizziness or feel unstable on your feet.
- Difficulty with walking or maintaining balance, along with general lower body weakness, can increase the risk of falling. Use a cane or a walker if you need help walking and include balance and strength training in your daily routine.
Unfortunately, preventing falls is like most matters related to health. It is not possible to completely remove the risk, so it’s important to know the steps to take in case of a fall:
- First, take deep breaths and try to relax.
- Don’t get up before figuring out if you’re injured. If you are hurt and get up too quickly, there’s a danger of making an injury worse.
- If you can get up — safely — roll over onto your side and rest for a couple moments. This will give your blood pressure a chance to adjust. Slowly get to your hands and knees and crawl to a sturdy seat or chair. Rest your hands on the chair and rise to a kneeling position, with one knee raised and the other still on the floor. Only then should you attempt to slowly rise the rest of the way and sit in the chair.
- If you can’t get up on your own, don’t push it. Call 911 and wait for help to arrive.