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What can seniors do to prevent falls?

Tuesday, October 10, 2023 9:22 AM

By Susan J. White

The aging process — both physical changes and health conditions — can make older adults more susceptible to falls.

Although a majority of us realize that strength and activity is important, we may not realize how specific activities can help mitigate the risk of falling. While falls are a major cause of injury in seniors, it’s never too late to take action at any age, to help prevent potentially injurious falls.

“Recent studies show that you can gain strength and build muscle your whole life,” said Luke Smith, System Manager of Outpatient Rehab Services and Sports Medicine at NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Many people lessen their activity level as they age, losing strength and flexibility, which can lead to a vicious cycle with unsteadiness, leading to further decreased activity and an increased risk for falling.

In “Blue Zones” (regions with reportedly high longevity) around the globe, researchers found concentrations of the healthiest, longest-living populations that all had similar things in common. In these regions, regular activity, including walking, climbing stairs, getting up and down from the ground daily, gardening, and not using assistive devices, were all hallmarks of their active lifestyles, said Smith. 

If you are a senior and have concerns about your fall risk, Smith encourages you to check with a physician or physical therapist to be screened for fall risks and develop a proactive plan to gain strength and balance.

Did you know that dizziness is a common condition that affects older people? There can be many causes, including certain prescription medications, explained Smith. A review of medications done by your physician is part of a thorough screening for fall risk, and anyone who experiences regular dizziness should check with their physician.

Increasing both aerobic and strength activity gradually is the best way to gain confidence and work toward preventing falls. Full body weight-bearing movements, like doing squats or standing exercises with light dumbbells, are good choices and functional activities, like taking the stairs, are great ways to build strength, said Smith.

These exercises work your core as well as your foot and ankle strength. It is always best to consider how to safely do new activities, and there are programs or therapists available to help guide you.

An occupational or physical therapist can help design a personalized plan of exercises and activities that helps more sedentary people safely gain strength and fitness, added Smith.

senior balanceMany simple exercises can be done at home with no equipment:

  • One common exercise is to safely practice standing on one leg, working up to 30 seconds or a minute on each leg, which can improve balance.  
  • Getting up and down, off of the ground or in and out of a chair, is another key way to test and improve fitness.
  • For those who experience pain while walking, water aerobics or walking in water can be a gentler alternative to building muscular strength and endurance.

Another important strategy to prevent falls is to identify and eliminate hazards in your home like loose throw rugs, electrical cords or other tripping hazards, particularly in walkways or high traffic-areas. Even assistive devices like canes and walkers can actually create fall risks when used incorrectly, said Smith.

Seniors who are concerned about their risk of falling can be evaluated using several different assessments that will be recorded and compared to normative data for their age group, explained Smith. “It does require some patience, but everyone can take steps to increase their activity and reduce their risk of falling,” he said. 

NorthShore’s Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Services feature the full range of disciplines involved in helping you reach your rehab goals, from reducing pain to improving or restoring mobility. Learn more.

The team of experts at NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Institute provides exceptional care for patients of all ages. Learn more.