From slipping on a wet curb to missing the last step on a flight of stairs, almost all of us have taken a tumble at least once in our lives. But as we get older, those tumbles can become more frequent – an unpleasant reminder that, whether we like it or not, our physical abilities aren’t as strong as they once were.
Every year nearly 30 percent of adults over the age of 65 report a fall, according to the America's Health Rankings Senior Report, a comprehensive analysis of senior population health prepared by the United Health Foundation. In fact, falls are the most common cause of trauma-related hospitalizations among older adults, and unfortunately, they can have fatal consequences.i In the United States, an older adult dies from complications of a fall every 19 minutes.
While these statistics are jarring, it can be all too easy to separate ourselves from them. Many of us have the perception that falls only happen to frail seniors in their 80s and 90s. If you’re working a part-time job, volunteering twice a week and a regular at Zumba class, it can be easy to think you’re not at risk. But that very mindset could be part of the problem.
“In my conversations with seniors who’ve had a fall, it almost always starts with, ‘I was in a hurry,’” said Christy Adams, a registered nurse with the UC Davis Health Stepping On program, an initiative designed to help people reduce their risk of falling. “As we get older, our body slows down, but our brain is still moving at a million miles an hour. Being present in daily activities is a good way to avoid a fall.”
Another culprit of falls in older adults? You can find it in your medicine cabinet. As we age we tend to use more prescription drugs, increasing the risk of side effects such as light headedness that can make falling more likely.
“People really need to be self-advocates when it comes to finding out about the potential side effects of their medications,” said Adams. “Don’t assume your doctor necessarily knows about the risk of falls posed by a medication. You should talk to a pharmacist to be sure.”
Even if you’re not taking any medications, you can’t escape the inevitable loss of muscle mass that goes along with aging. That drop in strength almost always comes with a side effect of its own: a weakened sense of balance, which according to Adams is a leading risk factor for falling.
The good news is that staying active can help maintain balance. The even better news? A variety of activities fit the bill.
“You don’t necessarily need to go to the gym,” said Adams. “There is evidence that everything from dancing to tai chi can help people maintain balance and stability.”
And while you’re engaging in some good old-fashioned strength and balance exercises to help minimize your risk of a fall, keep in mind that innovative new technologies could also be important tools to counter the loss of balance that often accompanies the aging process.
Take the Path Feel Insole, for example. The shoe insert is designed to improve balance for people with sensory deficits in the soles of their feet, something common to many older adults. Sensors in the insole create vibrations in response to pressure created while walking.
“We all take the feeling we get on the soles of our feet from walking for granted,” said Lise Pape, the founder of Walk with Path, the company developing the Path Feel Insole. “But if you can’t feel the floor very well, it will affect your balance, and you can have a greater chance for a fall.”
Studies of the insole during the development phase have shown the small vibrations could make a big impact on the risk of falling in seniors. For example, a study of people with poor balance determined that the vibrations from an insole reduced their tendency to sway while standing still and improved their walking style, such as by making it less likely for them to drag their feet.ii
The Path Feel Insole is considered so promising that it was named one of two winners of a Fall Prevention Innovation Challenge sponsored by AARP Services, Inc. and UnitedHealthcare earlier this year. The challenge was designed to identify new solutions that could prevent falls among older adults.
The other challenge winner takes a decidedly more practical, but no less impactful, approach to addressing fall risk in older adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that improved lighting can reduce the chance of a fall, something that Donovan Morrison had in mind when he co-founded his company Luna Lights.
Morrison and his team designed a lighting system connected to a pressure-sensitive strip that can be placed on top of a mattress. When a person gets out of bed in the middle of the night, the lighting system connected to the strip engages to light their path.
“My co-founder and I both had experiences with grandparents falling, and we knew how devastating a fall could be for a person,” said Morrison. “We saw that night time can be an especially risky period for a fall and decided to design something that could help.”
Both Morrison and Pape are also hoping to make their respective products an important source of data that can help reduce falls in the general population. Morrison believes Luna Lights’ ability to collect data about when people get up at night and how long they stay up could be used by researchers to better understand movement patterns that lead to falls. Likewise, Pape says that the information collected by the Path Feel Insole about a person’s gait and walking patterns could be applied in predictive modeling to help identify people at risk of a fall, potentially enabling earlier intervention.
The Bottom Line
While it’s exciting to think that the risk of falling could be markedly reduced thanks to digital and tech innovations, you don’t have to wait for those innovations to be readily available to up the odds of staying on your feet. Falls are more common than many people think, and all of us are susceptible, so be aware of risks from your medications, stay active, clear your home of trip hazards, and talk to your health care professional about strategies you could try to avoid a potentially devastating fall.
Plans are insured through UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or one of its affiliated companies. For Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plans: A Medicare Advantage organization with a Medicare contract and a Medicare-approved Part D sponsor. Enrollment in these plans depends on the plan’s contract renewal with Medicare.
i National Council on Aging, Falls in the Elderly Statistics, https://www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/falls-prevention-facts/
ii Winfree KN, Pretzer-Aboff I, Hilgart D, Aggarwal R, Behari M, Agrawal SK. The effect of step-synchronized vibration on patients with Parkinson’s disease: case studies on subjects with freezing of gait or an implanted deep brain stimulator. IEEE Trans Neural Syst Rehabil Eng (2013) 21(5):806–11.10.1109/TNSRE.2013.2250308