How to Prevent the Top Cause of Deadly Injury Among Older People

These accidents lead to injury, disability and even death. Here’s how to protect your loved ones.

senior man walking downstairs with cane

For American adults older than age 65, a fall could be life-threatening—and the rate of fatalities from falls in this age group is on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Falls are the number one cause of injuries and death from injury among older adults. In fact, about one in four older people in the U.S. suffer a fall each year. There were nearly 30,000 deaths related to falls in 2016 alone, and that number has been increasing by about three percent every year.  

Even falls that don’t cause pain can be dangerous for older adults, says Kevin Wang, MD, an orthopedic surgeon practicing with Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Falls are especially insidious, because even if they aren’t fatal, they can still lead to other problems. "Most patients we see after a fall sustain hip fractures," he says. The fall can also cause a head injury or other bone fractures. And recovery poses its own dangers. When an older adult has a hip fracture as a result of a fall, they can have problems during their recovery if they’re immobilized and in bed. Being bed-ridden over time can cause heart and lung complications as well as blood clots and pressure ulcers, also known as bedsores, says Dr. Wang.

Older adults are at special risk for serious—even deadly—complications following a fall, says Wang. That’s because several healthcare challenges, specific to older adults, come into play, including:

  • Poorer access to health care.
  • Older adults are likely to have more than one—often several—chronic health conditions.
  • Health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes, make it easier for an older adult to fall.
  • Some older adults have trouble thinking and making decisions, due to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. These cognitive problems are a risk factor for falling.

In their report, the CDC highlight the fact that though potentially fatal for the older population, falls are preventable.

How to fall-proof your home

Did you know that 6 out of 10 falls happen at home? You can make a tremendous difference to your safety or that of your older loved one by de-cluttering the home—especially the floor, suggests Wang.

Here are more ways to prevent falls in your home:

  • Take throw rugs off the floor. If you have carpets, make sure they are tightly secured to the ground. For tile and wood floors, you can buy no-slip strips to apply to the floor to prevent slips.
  • Make sure the house is well lit—especially be sure there’s good lighting in potentially dangerous areas like the top of stairs.
  • Install grab bars, railings and ramps. You should definitely consider adding grab bars to the toilet area, as well as the inside and outside the bathtub or shower area.
  • In the bathroom area especially, make sure there are non-skid mats in areas that could get wet and slippery like near the bathtub.
  • Regularly ask the older adult if they feel safe.
  • Be sure they have proper footwear; pick sturdy, well-fitted shoes that have non-slip soles.
  • Use night lights to make sure your loved one can safely walk around the house after hours.
  • Keep things that they use regularly in easy reach.
  • Always know the location of pets when walking, so you don’t accidently slip or fall over them.

Another simple way to keep your loved one safe: make sure they keep a telephone by their bed along with an emergency contact sheet that lists important phone numbers in large, reader-friendly type. If an emergency happens they can easily reach for the phone and dial for help.

Check vision and hearing, plus update medications

If you take care of an older adult, have their vision and hearing checked annually. If your loved one wears a hearing aid make sure it works and fits well. Also, make sure the doctor reviews and updates their medications, because some medications or combinations can cause dizziness and falls, notes Wang.

Make sure the doctor, pharmacist or other healthcare provider talks with the patient about how to take their medicines safely.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Keeping your body strong and fit is the best possible way to prevent deadly falls, says Wang.

“I can’t say often enough that most falls are preventable. Everyone should start early in their adult life to maintain good health. This includes living a healthy lifestyle, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining bone health and having regular medical checkups,” says Wang.

“Growing old is not a curse—but not taking care of yourself can be,” adds Wang.

How to get up from a fall

The hard truth is you might not be there when your loved one falls down, but you can teach them to get up properly from a fall.

After a fall, they should take a few deep breaths to calm themselves down. Then they should decide if they are hurt—or able to properly get up. If they’re injured, getting up could make the injuries worse.

If they can safely get up, they should roll on to one side, rest again to lower blood pressure, slowly get up on hands and knees, then slowly crawl to a sturdy chair. Next, place your hands on the seat chair and slide one foot forward so it’s flat on the floor. Make sure the other leg is bent so the knee is touching the floor. And from this position, slowly rise up and gently turn your body to sit in the chair.

What to do if your loved one experiences a fall

If your loved one hit her head when she fell, or lost consciousness even for a few seconds, or shows any sign of confusion, seek immediate medical attention or call 911, even if there’s no sign of obvious injury.

After any fall, even one that seems minor, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. The fall could be related to a health problem, and your physician will want to evaluate your loved one to find the cause and prevent future falls.

While senior adults do fear falling, there are precautionary measures you can take to help them stay safe like fall-proofing your home and getting them proper footwear. And perhaps most important, make sure they know what to do if they experience a fall—how to get up and who to call for help.

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