Accidents happen all the time, and typically we pick ourselves up and go on our merry way. This is not so for our most frail friends and family members - the elderly. Accidental falls are a major health problem among older adults in the United States. One of every three people older than 65 living in the community falls each year. The chance of falling increases to one in two by the age of 80 years.
A common result of falls among the elderly is the dreaded fractured hip. As our population ages, there will be a growing number of hip fractures with estimated medical costs rising to $240 billion by the year 2040. In the worst cases, falls contribute to an increase in premature death.
Current medical research demonstrates falls can be attributed to one factor but are most likely the result of several factors. Risk factors identified as related to falls are things such as age, poor vision, decreased muscle strength, poor flexibility and decreased sensation - meaning you may not feel or sense things the way you used to. Other risk factors are poor balance, the different types of medications you may be taking, and additional medical problems you may be experiencing. Hence, the greater the number of risk factors, the greater the chance of falling.
Healthcare providers have demonstrated that early identification of these risk factors, coupled with appropriate health management, may reduce falls by up to 30 percent. Like most potential health risks, early intervention and identification of those at risk may well prevent serious injury or injuries. If you believe you may be at risk for a fall, based on the factors listed above, it is recommended you contact your healthcare provider and discuss a management program. Most important with all health problems - consult your family physician.
Physical therapists are frontline healthcare providers trained to reduce falls with treatment programs that improve mobility, strength and balance. Physical therapists incorporate a clinical balance tool - a test to determine an individual's risk of falling - and combine the results of the test with their examinations and evaluations to devise treatment programs. Early identification of individuals at risk of falling could prevent injury while improving mobility, endurance, strength and balance. Medicare has introduced initiatives for healthcare providers to collect data on those beneficiaries at risk of falling in an effort to prevent future falls.
Many accidents are preventable, and the initial steps begin at home. Tackle the environmental stumbling blocks first. The following are some quick tips to help eliminate obstacles in the home that could contribute to a fall: remove all throw rugs; install grab bars around tubs and toilets; and be sure you have lighting accessible from the bedside to assist with finding your way safely for nighttime bathroom trips. Carrying a cordless telephone or cellphone in a pocket or apron at all times is also a smart move.
You can manage the initial steps in preventing falls. After that, the next preventive steps begin with visiting your family physician. He or she will perform the necessary assessments and if necessary, make referrals to the appropriate healthcare professionals.
Dr. Philip Allen is the clinical director at ATI Physical Therapy in the Safeway Plaza on Route 1 in Rehoboth Beach. For more information, call 302-226- 2230.