Falls are the leading cause of death from injury among seniors, and the risk increases with age. Fully one third of those over age 65 fall each year, and many suffer severe or even fatal injuries. Additionally, a person who has fallen once has double the chance of falling again. The statistics are disconcerting:
- One in five falls results in serious injuries, including broken bones and head injuries.
- Each year, 2.8 million seniors are treated in emergency rooms for falls.
- Over 800,000 individuals are hospitalized because of falls, and at least 300,000 are hospitalized for hip fractures.
- Medical costs related to falls are approximately $31 billion annually.
There are numerous, often inter-related, conditions that contribute to falls. They include, increasing body weakness, the effects of medicines, vitamin deficiencies, vision issues, tripping hazards, and walking and balancing issues. Researchers at the Mobility and Brain Function Program at the Institute for Aging Research (Harvard Medical School) are concentrating on understanding what causes older adults to fall, which will hopefully lead to development of preventive measures. They have found a direct correlation between balance and reduction of fall risk in older adults.
In a recent article, Dr. Brad Manor, the program’s director, explains that as we grow older, our ability to efficiently perform multiple tasks at the same time start to slowly deteriorate. Even the simplest of simultaneous activities, such as walking and talking, can disrupt our balance and put us at risk for a serious fall-related injury.
Mobility, the researchers conclude, is both physical and mental. The physical part relies on the ability of your muscles and reflexes to create the movement necessary to help maintain balance. The mental part relies on your ability to pay attention to the world around you, your short-term memory of where your legs and feet are located related to the ground, and your ability to make the correct decision to change your movements when needed, such as when a sidewalk is wet or covered with snow.
In an effort to find ways to prevent falls by seniors, researchers at the Center have started looking at exercises that target both the physical and mental fundamentals in mobility. They found that the purposeful movements and fluid repetitious motions in Tai Chi not only boost muscle function but also stimulate the mental functions that make mobility easier. Yoga and dance also have great mind-body interactions and work well to improve balance in older adults. While walking on a treadmill, riding a bike or strength training are all beneficial exercises, they were found to not have the balance component necessary to most effectively prevent falls.
Often, older adults will fall, become injured and then be less active. This chain of events causes further balance deterioration and greater risk of suffering another fall in the future. Dr. Manor stresses that it’s never too late or too early to start exercises to help improve balance and prevent the debilitating results that can come with a balance-related injury later. He does caution that any balance-based exercise should be done in a group or with a partner for safety reasons, and to check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise.
In Cleveland, organizations such as Fairhill Partners offer programs to assist older individuals develop strategies and practices to improve balance, flexibility, and strength. http://fairhillpartners.org/services/take-charge-of-your-health/a-matter-of-balance/
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