If you are over 65 years old, you have a one in three chance of falling this year. For people aged 80 or over, the risk increases to one in two.
Falls are the leading cause of injury in the 65 plus age group. They can have serious consequences, including trauma, pain, impaired function, loss of confidence in carrying out everyday activities, loss of independence and autonomy and even death. Older people fall most often at home, leading to injuries such as cuts and bruises, broken bones or worse. As a result, many people require admission to a hospital or residential care facility. Falls cause 90% of all hip fractures.
Loss of independence is feared by many people. Preventing falls is one of the most important things you can do to maintain your independence. Even if you have had a minor fall that didn't cause any injury, it may affect your confidence. You should tell your doctor and ask for a health assessment.
Often falls can be prevented by taking relatively minor steps, such as changing your medication dosage, altering your glasses or taking some exercise. The majority of falls occur because of multiple interacting factors but leg muscle weakness and impaired balance contribute to most falls.
Falls mostly occur when you have:
- Poor balance
- Weak muscles
- Low blood pressure
- Poor vision
- Medical conditions (e.g. Parkinson's, stroke.)
You may also be at risk of falling if you are not active or take multiple medications.
There are aspects of your health and how you behave – as well as things in your surroundings – that you can change to reduce your chances of falling. Strength, flexibility, balance and reaction time are considered the most readily modifiable risk factors for falls. People, even in their 90s, can improve their strength and balance to achieve stability and avoid falls.
Reducing risks in your home will help too. Make your home as safe as possible (eg. Remove loose mats, and objects which you may trip over, tuck away electrical cords, avoid spills and slippery or polished floors). Outdoors, keep an eye out for potential hazards that may cause you to trip or slip such as uneven pavements or steps. A home safety checklist is included in an ACC booklet, "Standing up to Falls" which is available from your local ACC office or by calling 04 494 5026. or
Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to help stand up to falls. That's because weak leg muscles and poor balance increase your risk of falling. You are likely to walk less if you feel unsteady on your feet, and that leads to weaker muscles and stiffer joints. If this sounds like you, it's time to get active!
Regular exercise provides you with a whole range of benefits. It can:
- Improve your balance
- Improve your muscle strength and flexibility
- Help keep your bones strong
- Give you more energy
- Help you sleep better
- Help control blood pressure, blood sugar levels and weight.
How you can help
- Keep up your general fitness by walking for 30 minutes a day most days of the week. Or take three 10-minute walks each day. (Note that walking will not, on its own, result in a reduction of falls.)
- Talk to your doctor about managing pain that may be stopping you from being more active.eg falls.
- Eat a healthy diet. For strong bones, make sure you are getting enough vitamin D, either from daily exposure to the sun or from supplements which the doctor may prescribe.
- Consider an exercise programme incorporating strength and balance exercises. There are many available. Your doctor or other health providers can help you find one which is right for you.
- Keeping yourself mobile is very important for avoiding falls. As we age, our feet can change shape and lose some feeling. Painful, swollen feet or badly fitting shoes can make walking difficult and affect our balance. But it's not all bad!
There's still plenty you can do to stand up for your feet.
1. Wear well fitting, flat shoes and slippers with non-slip soles for increased stability.
2. Don't walk around the house in socks or stockings.
3. See a podiatrist or doctor if your feet are painful or swollen, or if you develop problems like bunions.
4. Exercise your feet to keep them healthy. A variety of exercisers and apparatus is available to help you with this. One simple and inexpensive one is the Aircycle inflatable exerciser which is so easy and enjoyable to use while watching TV. It helps keep feet healthy, promote blood circulation and reduce swollen ankles, helping to improve walking.
Because the Aircycle exercises work the ankles, knees and hips they help to strengthen leg muscles and increase joint flexibility – so important for maintaining and improving balance, stability and independence. Find the Aircycle in the GrownUps Shop here.
For more information on the Aircycle or to order, visit www.aircycle.co.nz or call 04 569 5013.
* Thanks very much to ACC for their input and information.