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Reduce your risk of falling in older age

This article originally appeared in Texas A&M Health's Vital Record.

Every September, Healthy Aging Month urges older adults to take the time to reevaluate and improve their physical, mental, social and financial well-being. Although things look a bit different in 2020, older adults can still make efforts to improve their surroundings and health—especially when it comes to preventing falls.

Falls are not a normal part of aging, but they are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans, with one in four older adults falling each year. Such falls can result in minor bruising to more serious hip fractures, broken bones and head injuries.

“Staying healthy is key to improving our well-being,” said Marcia Ory, PhD, MPH, founding director of the Texas A&M Health Center for Population Health and Aging. “Being less physically active puts you at a higher risk for falls, but doing things such as strength and balance exercises and managing your environmental risk factors are great steps to take toward preventing falls.”

There are three common risk factors that can result in falls: physical, behavioral and environmental. Physical risk factors are body changes that can increase your fall risk. Behavioral risk factors are the actions we do or don’t do that increase fall risks, and environmental risk factors are those hazards that are in your home or community.

According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), there are five problem areas to watch for that can potentially cause falls that could otherwise be avoided:

  • Muscle weakness, balance and gait problems: some strength, coordination, flexibility and balance are lost primarily through inactivity as a person ages, making falling easier.

  • Vision problems: less light reaches the retina in the aging eye, causing edges of objects to appear less sharp and trip hazards less apparent.

  • Medication use: some medications, both prescription and non-prescription, may cause drowsiness and dizziness or have interactions with each other that could result in falls.

  • Environment: modifications like removing bunched up rugs and long cords can reduce fall hazards.

  • Chronic conditions: chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease or arthritis can increase fall risks, because often these conditions result in lost function or inactivity.

Fortunately, there are six steps people can take to reduce their risk of falling, according to the NCOA.

  1. Find a good exercise program that can help build balance, strength and flexibility.

  2. Talk to your health care provider regularly about your falls history and any recent changes. You can also ask for a falls assessment to know your risk.

  3. Review your medications regularly with your pharmacist and/or your health care provider to make sure they are not increasing your risk of falling.

  4. Get your hearing and vision checked on a regular basis.

  5. Assess your home by removing any tripping hazards, increasing lighting, installing grab bars and making stairs safe, as necessary.

  6. Talk to your family members and include them in your efforts to make your surroundings and yourself safe from falls.

“Falls are common, but they are largely preventable,” said Matthew Lee Smith, PhD, MPH, CHES, co-director of the Center for Population Health and Aging. “Falls prevention is a team effort. A person’s social network can really influence their falls risk. Older adults can get a lot of support from their friends, their children, their spouses—whoever it is.”

According to the NCOA, “Falls remain a leading cause of injury for people aged 65 and older. Falls threaten older adults’ safety and independence and generate enormous economic and personal costs. However, through practical lifestyle adjust

ments, evidence-based falls prevention programs and clinical-community partnerships, the number of falls among older adults can be substantially reduced.”

For the first time, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) has declared September 21-25, 2020, Falls Prevention Awareness week. In the past, the first day of fall was deemed Falls Prevention Awareness Day.

The Center for Population Health and Aging is partnering with the Texas Active for Life® Coalition, Texas Healthy at Home, the Texas Association of Area Agencies on Aging (T4A), and Texas Health and Human Services Aging Services Coordination to bring a week of online programming concerning Falls Prevention in Texas.

“We are excited to offer this online programming to Texans across the state,” Smith said. “We will be featuring a variety of panelists and evidence-based program demonstrations, highlighting efforts made by these programs and individuals to reduce falls among Texans.”

Featured evidence-based programming demos include Enhanced Fitness, led by the YMCA of Waco; Bingocize, led by program developer Jason Crandall; and Tai-Chi Moving for Better Balance, led by Amy Comer of the Houston-Galveston Area Agency on Aging.

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