2016 is off to a great start and I hope you’ve been thinking about how you can improve your health in the New Year. If you haven’t already, check out my new Day-Off Diet, which can help you with your weight-loss resolutions. Today, I want to take on an issue not quite as sexy as weight loss, but arguably just as important and potentially lifesaving as well. Few people think about how a fall could affect their life, yet one in three adults over 65 will fall each year, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Not over 65? Chances are, you have a loved one in this age bracket who might be at risk for a serious injury if they were to fall. Find out more about falls and how to prevent a fall from happening in the first place. Let’s make this year a safer one.
Falls Are More Serious the Older You Are
It’s amazing how indestructible kids seem when they’re playing. Having watched my kids and now my grandkids grow up, I’m always amazed how a 5-year-old can take a serious-looking tumble and pop right back up. While we keep some of that resilience as we age, our ability to bounce back really starts to drop off as we get older. There are a few reasons for that. One is that we lose muscle mass as we age. As we get weaker, we get worse at keeping ourselves from falling over and regaining balance when we do trip. The muscles that kept us balanced before aren’t strong enough to counter a missed step or an unseen toy on the ground and things that wouldn’t have fazed us now send us flying.
The second reason falls can be so serious is that our bones really start to drop in strength as we get older. Men experience a constant slow loss of bone, but for women, the big turning point is after menopause. Weaker bones break more easily with impacts like serious falls, which means you can end up breaking bones that wouldn’t normally break when you were younger, like your hip or the femur in your leg. While there are things you can do to slow bone loss, your bones will still be weaker at 70 than they were at 30 no matter how hard you work.
Falls Can Be Deadly
What few people realize is how deadly falls can be. One of the deadliest bones to break is your hip. Every year, more than 250,000 people over 65 break their hips. More than one in five out of this group die within a year of the hip fracture. Those who do survive lose a significant amount of function. While the fracture can be disabling and make walking and moving a challenge, hospital stays during the recovery period can also lead to significant muscle loss and weakness. That means it’s harder to get around and once you’ve had a fall, you are at risk for more falls if you ever get back to walking independently.
Falls Can Be Prevented
Fortunately, falls are mostly preventable. Here are some of the ways you can decrease your fall risk in and outside your home.
- Check for trip dangers. Potential hazards include carpets, small single steps (into a bathroom or out of the house for example), and wires or cables. My advice is to shuffle around your house looking for things your feet could potentially catch on. Try to move any rugs or cables that cross an area where you walk. Grab some brightly colored tape and put it on any steps that someone might not see and trip over. Try to keep toys, shoes, or any other objects off the floor when not in use.
- Improve lighting. Changing bulbs or getting more lamps might not seem like a way to prevent falls, but our vision declines as we get older. Oftentimes we trip because we don’t see something we could have seen if the lighting had been brighter. You can upgrade your lighting just by buying a few higher wattage bulbs to replace old ones in commonly used rooms and hallways and putting extra lamps in dimly lit areas. Also make sure you have night-lights in the bathroom and hallways so you don’t trip when you get up in the middle of the night.
- Check your eyes. Our eyes change as we get older. Those glasses you got when you were 50 may not be the right strength now that you’re 65. If it’s been more than a year since you last had your eyes checked, make an appointment with the optometrist to check your prescription and make sure your glasses match your vision. Poor vision because of mismatched glasses is a major reason people take a tumble.
- Check your prescriptions. Medications that worked well for you when you were young can sometimes cause issues as you get older by making you feel drowsy or a little off-balance. Check with your doctor at your next appointment to see if any medications might be putting you at risk for falls.
- Look out for osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a bone disease that involves the weakening of your bones. Your doctor can screen you for it and give you medications to try and prevent breaks if necessary. Those most at risk are women over age 50, those who smoke or have smoked in the past, those with a family history of osteoporosis, and those who are heavy alcohol drinkers.
- Get to the gym. This is a two-for-one prevention measure. Doing strengthening exercises helps with your balance, making you less likely to fall if you trip. These exercises also help prevent bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis and easy bone breaks, so you’ll be less likely to fracture something if you do fall. Talk to your doctor about what types of exercises are best to lower your risk.
- Get a cane or walker and use it. Many people at risk for falls could benefit from using a cane or walker, which adds extra points of contact to the ground for stability. Oftentimes, people who get canes don’t want to use them because they feel these devices make them look old. The important part to remember is that your health takes precedence over any image problem. You’re going to wish you used that cane when you’re lying in the hospital with a broken hip.
- Talk to your doctor. Your doctor is the best person to talk to and can advise you about different ways to prevent falls. If you’re over 65 or know someone who is, be proactive and bring it up in conversation or at the next visit.
I know that you and your loved ones can have a healthy, happy 2016 that’s completely fall-free. Start making changes that could save your life or the life of someone you love.