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LVHN health tips: Slips, trips and falls

One out of every four people 65 years old and older fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

As a result, 3 million people are treated in hospital emergency departments, and more than 32,000 people die each year as a result of falls.

“Falls are one of the leading causes of death, injury and hospital admissions among the elderly population,” said Dr. Kimberly Fritts, a physical therapist with Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Falls can lead to fractures and other serious injuries that can impact a person’s level of activity.

“A decreased activity level makes it more difficult to maintain overall strength, mobility and independence,” she said.

Falling also has a psychological impact in that it can make a person afraid of falling again. But falling isn’t something that is inevitable in aging. It can be prevented.

Since more people are choosing to stay in their homes as they age, there are ways for them to reduce their risk of falling.

“Grab bars are one of the simplest yet most effective tools that can improve safety in the home,” Fritts said.

Installed in strategic places in the house, she said grab bars are an inexpensive addition that makes it easier for older people to safely navigate their home.

“Grab bars in homes are crucial to fall prevention,” Fritts said.

Grab bars help people to balance themselves, so they can redistribute their weight, she said. They also provide something stable for them to hold onto and stop from falling if they lose their balance. They are becoming the norm in bathrooms.

“The bathroom has been identified as the most dangerous room in the home and it is where the majority of all aging adult falls occur,” she said.

Another area where grab bars can be helpful is where there is a step up or step down. That transitioning between different level surfaces can be difficult for older adults, Fritts said. Likewise, having grab bars in the entrance area of a house can help a person go up or down the stairs when entering or leaving.

“Solid hand rails that are installed on interior stairs are also important to extend the ability to fully live in the home and move between floors as needed,” she said.

There are also other factors in a house that can increase a person’s risk of falling, such as loose carpets, clutter and slippery floors.

In order to reduce the risk, Fritts recommends removing throw rugs, reducing the clutter, and wearing nonslip shoes. Making sure there is proper lighting throughout the house is also advisable.

“Declining vision makes it more difficult to detect fall hazards,” she said. “Wearing glasses, if needed, when navigating the hallway or house at night is critical in maintaining safety.”

Although slip hazards can exist in a house and some medications can cause drowsiness, dizziness and low blood pressure, which can contribute to falls, these are the biggest reason for them.

Fritts said the single most important reason that falls occur is due to a decline in physical activity.

When a person stops being involved in even mild exercise on a regular basis, the result can be reduced muscle strength, decreased bone mass and reduced flexibility. Their risk of losing their balance and coordination increases.

“The best thing that an aging adult can do to improve balance is to maintain an active lifestyle,” she said. “Regular exercise, which promotes flexibility, balance and strength, can ultimately decrease fall risk.”

Fritts said participating in a structured group exercise program, taking short walks around the block, walking the aisles at the grocery store, or playing with their grandchildren at a park are all forms of exercise. And exercise can help increase endurance.

“Walking is a fantastic weight-bearing exercise,” she said.

Walking can help reduce fatigue, increase stamina and encourage strength.

To strengthen bones, Fritts recommends resistance training.

“Lifting weights and/or pulling on resistance bands improves bone density because when the muscle pulls on the bone, the bone responds by getting stronger,” she said. Likewise, “strengthening exercises, specifically of large muscles such as the upper thighs, have been shown to significantly improve balance and assist in maintaining the ability to perform activities of daily living.”

Fritts said it is important to talk with a doctor about any concerns. This way, the doctors can address a problem promptly.

If physical therapy is needed, Fritts said “physical therapists are trained in bone-loading exercises to help prevent and manage osteoporosis and osteopenia.”

Slips and falls can happen to anyone, but people age 65 and older are more at risk of falling. METROGRAPHICS