As politics has become all-consuming these days, my column this week will pivot to health, offering a respite from the usual news, fake or otherwise.
Once upon a time when we were in our early lives, we fell down frequently. This was as we learned to walk, ride a bicycle, learned to ski, and played sports. In those days, we just got up, dusted ourselves off, and went back to whatever we were doing.
At the other end of life, falls are not merely an inconvenience. Much more can be bruised or broken than one’s ego. Bones and internal organs are much less tolerant of a tumble to the ground in a 75-year-old compared to a 5-year-old.
A study recently published in the JAMA medical journal found that from 2000 to 2016, the rate of mortality from falls in the over 75 age group has more than doubled. Specifically, from a rate of 52 to 111 per 100,000 people. These numbers aren’t simply falls but those who died from their falls.
Researchers cannot explain the increase. People are living longer, and orthopedic surgeries are keeping elderly individuals mobile where they are also more prone to fall. The fact remains that falls are a big problem for the elderly. Some statistics from the CDC make the point.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury in older adults. One in four Americans over age 65 fall each year. Falls result in 2.8 million injuries treated in emergency rooms each year with 800,000 hospitalizations and 27,000 deaths. Every 19 minutes, a senior citizen dies from a fall.
We hear much about overdose deaths compared to falls. About 70,000 Americans died in 2017 from a drug overdose, more than falls but only by a small factor. Drug abuse receives much more attention compared to falls. There is a nationwide push to limit opioid prescriptions and subsequent addiction, but we hear little about falling. No administration will appoint a “fall czar” although all have a “drug czar”.
What can be done? Keep active and stay strong. Core strength will help keep you upright, particularly when moving from an awkward position or lifting an odd object. Strength training is not just for young athletes, those of all ages can benefit from sensible weight lifting and conditioning.
Get an eye exam. Decreased vision in one eye, due to a cataract, macular degeneration, or a host of other conditions can reduce depth perception, making it easier to miss a step or curb, leading to a fall.
Watch those medications. Many can cause dizziness as a side effect. Dehydration can play a role as well, particularly in our warm dry climate.
Check out the home front. Is lighting adequate, particular around stairs and steps? Use a nightlight to illuminate the way for those middle of the night bathroom runs where sleepiness and darkness can lead to a fall. Are there rails on both sides of staircases? Is there something to grab onto in the shower or bathtub where water makes everything more slippery?
US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun died after a fall at age 90. He fell at home, broke his hip, and suffered complications after surgery, leading to a downhill spiral. My father suffered a similar fate.
Falls are common in the elderly and many can be prevented by fall-proofing the home and maintaining physical strength and balance. Otherwise as the nursery rhyme goes, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
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