Getting older is a very dangerous disease. After all, no one leaves this planet alive unless you’re an astronaut. But even astronauts face the same problems on earth as we do. As we all get older, we’re likely to die from one of the big killers: heart failure, stroke, or cancer. But there’s another threat, falling down! It’s been said, “Never let a stumble in the road be the end of the journey”. Sounds easy, but the figures of elderly falls would make the dead sit up and take notice.
The risk of falling increases with age, and is greater for women than men. Each year falls are reported by one-third of people over the age of 65 and the leading cause of death. It gets worse. More than half of falls involving people 75 and older are fatal. And 25 percent of seniors who break a hip from a fall die within six months.
Possibly the greatest tragedy is not to die, then have to face the fact that life as you knew it will never be the same again. About half of those who fracture a hip have to accept that their days of independent living are over and the wheelchair becomes a part of life. It’s tough to lose your license to drive a car. But it’s disastrous not to be able to walk.
This disaster can happen in a split second. One of my classmates at The Harvard Medical School, who became a distinguished professor, slipped on black ice one morning causing a severe fracture of pelvic bones. He told me, “My life changed immediately.” So much so that, since the injury, it was impossible for him to return to class reunions even though he lives nearby.
Others may trip on a loose carpet, fail to see the last step on a staircase, or suddenly lose their balance and fall for no apparent reason. These are not rare problems. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year 2.8 million people are treated in emergency departments for falling. And that 27,000 older adults died from complications.
A report from the University of California states the most dangerous myth is that falling is an inevitable part of aging. It stressed this need not be the case and that falls can be prevented. Another report in the Journal of the American Medical Association identifies the best strategies to decrease these tragic falls. It reports that Canadian researchers studied 159,901 people age 65 and over. And there was no doubt that exercising beat all other methods in preventing falls. Exercise helps to maintain the strength of muscles, flexibility, and balance. And these good results came from either bicycling, yoga, tai chi, aerobic or even a brisk walk.
Another strategy is to correct faulty vision. Researchers found that a combination of exercise along with good vision was the most effective way to prevent many falls.
Since more than half of the falls occur in the home we need to get smart about potential pitfalls. Remove electrical cords that could cause a fall. Place night lights in hallways, bathrooms and bedrooms, and wear shoes or slippers with non-slip soles. Be sure to install hand bars near toilets and in bathtubs and showers. Above all else be extra careful in bathrooms, especially if you are travelling. It pays to check foreign bathrooms carefully on arrival in a hotel.
There is another statistic that should make anyone who tends to fall take notice of current research. Reports show that two-thirds of those who fall, do so again within six months.
If this does happen and you have to spend time recovering, don’t get depressed, and begin to feel sorry for yourself for being less careful. Remember, things can always be worse such as someone dying of terminal cancer. As one wise sage remarked, “There are many people suffering from worse conditions who would love to have one of your bad days!”
Dr. Ken Walker (Gifford-Jones) is a graduate of the University of Toronto and The Harvard Medical School. He trained in general surgery at the Strong Memorial Hospital, University of Rochester, Montreal General Hospital, McGill University and in gynecology at Harvard. He has also been a general practitioner, ship’s surgeon and hotel doctor. Sign up for medical tips at docgiff.com, and take a look at the new web site.