Did you know that every 35 minutes an older American dies as the result of a fall? The deaths of newscaster David Brinkley, the “weight-loss guru,” Doctor Robert Atkins, i.e., the famous “Atkins diet,” and former Washington Post owner Katharine Graham all resulted from traumatic brain and head injuries precipitated by falls.
You say, “But sooner or later, everybody falls.” True. When you’re young, a fall may mean a scratch or a bruise but for an older person, a fall can mean a broken bone and a loss of mobility and independence, and even death. Most fractures among older adults are caused by falls, with hip fractures being the most frequent bone break, and among the most costly to treat. A study released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by 2020, falls may cost the nation $43.8 billion in direct and indirect costs. “We learned from this survey just how wide-spread falls are,” says Judy Stevens, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Injury Center. “This is a huge public health issue. More than one-third of adults age 65 and older fall at least once each year.”
THE GOOD NEWS
The good news is that many falls can be prevented. Falls are not an inevitable part of aging. But it would be wise to understand why seniors fall and take actions to protect the older adults they care about. First, understand that physical changes associated with aging can contribute to increased fall risk, including arthritis, irregular heartbeat, reduced visual abilities, slower reflexes, urinary and bladder dysfunction, and weaker muscle strength and tone. Diuretics and muscle relaxants may also increase your risk of falling.
Older adults who take medications (or combinations of medicines) can have side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness. This can make falling more likely. Have your doctor or pharmacist review all medications to help reduce the chance of risky side effects and drug interactions. (You should not discontinue these medications without a doctor’s supervision.) Also, seniors who have Alzheimer’s disease or a related illness may face a greater risk of falling—as well as realize more severe complications from tumbles—largely due to altered mobility (i.e., balance, coordination) and cognition (i.e, judgment, spatial perception). But there are some simple strategies you can employ to help reduce the risk of a fall.
One key to reducing the risk of serious falls is exercise. “Several studies show that exercise and activity, specifically those that help in strengthening, flexibility, and balance, can make a significant difference in minimizing one’s chance of falling,” says Jennie Chin Hansen, president of AARP, which has made fall prevention a priority in its efforts to promote healthy behaviors. Perhaps the best exercise for many seniors who can’t run marathons or lift weights is Tai chi. Tai chi helps improve balance because it targets all the physical components needed to stay upright—leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, and reflexes—all of which tend to decline with age.
Studies have shown tai chi to reduce falls in seniors by up to 45% (Harvard Health Blog, August 23, 2012). It can also improve balance in people with neurological problems. A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine found the program particularly effective for balance in people with Parkinson’s disease. With its integrative approach that strengthens the body while focusing the mind, tai chi addresses a range of physical and mental health issues—including bone strength, joint stability, cardiovascular health, immunity, and emotional well-being. Tai chi is especially useful for improving balance and preventing falls—a major concern for older adults.
Interestingly, one of Tai chi’s biggest benefits to stability isn’t physical—but emotional.
“Anyone who’s had a fall or who has instability has what we call a ‘fear of falling,’” says Dr. Peter Wayne, research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
“Ironically, a fear of falling is one of the biggest predictors of a fall.”
By making you firmer on your feet, Tai Chi takes away that fear, he says. Tai chi also makes you more aware of both your internal body and the external world, giving you a better sense of your position in space, so you won’t be as likely to trip and fall if you try to simultaneously talk to a friend and navigate a busy sidewalk.
CONTACTING LOCAL SENIOR CENTERS
Contact your local senior center and ask whether they offer tai chi or any other exercise program geared towards improving balance. If you want to stay in the Japanese communities centers, you’re in luck:
If you’re in the Torrance/Gardena area, the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (“JCI”) offers Tai Chi classes on Wednesdays and Fridays. Cost is $3 per class. The JCI also offers other “Health & Fitness” classes such as yoga, stretching, and Qi Gong. You may contact the Gardena JCI office at (310) 324-6611 for class dates and times.T
If you’re in the San Fernando Valley, the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center (SFVJACC) in Pacoima offers tai chi classes on Monday mornings. Cost is $1-2 per class. The SFVJACC also offers other exercise classes such as yoga, Zumba, and exercise. You may contact the SFVJACC office at (818) 899-1989 for class dates and times.
If you’re in the San Gabriel Valley, the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center (ESGVJCC) in Covina offers Wednesdays. The cost is $5 per class. The ESGVJCC also offers other “Senior Wellness Programs” such as yoga, stretching, and Fitness Corner. You may contact the ESGVJCC office at (626) 960-2566.
On the ESGVJCC website I found that Keiro’s Healthy Living Program was sponsoring an 8-week course, 2 hours per week, called “A Matter of Balance.” This program from Kaiser Permanente is designed to prevent falls and increase activity levels among older adults. However, the course is not presently being offered. To get more information on when and where the next course will be offered, contact Kanako Fukuyama at (213) 873-5709.
Finally, just in case – PREPARE IN ADVANCE. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America website suggests that you have a notification system in place, especially when people live alone. Consider medical alert products that notify a call center in the case of a fall or other emergency. Ask a family member, neighbor, etc. to check on the person daily by phone or in-person—and take action if something seems amiss.