Falls, fractures and hip replacements are common problems in elderly people, due to bone loss, bone fragility and osteoporosis.
Did You Know?
- More than 90 percent of hip fractures are associated with osteoporosis.
- Nine out of 10 hip fractures in older Americans are the result of a fall.
- Elderly individuals who have a hip fracture are 5 to 20 percent more likely to die in the first year following that injury than others in this age group.
- For those living independently before a hip fracture, 15 to 25 percent will still be in long-term care institutions a year after their fracture.
Falls are serious at any age, and breaking a bone after a fall becomes more likely as a person ages. Many of us know someone who has fallen and broken a bone. While healing, the fracture limits the person’s activities and sometimes requires surgery.
Often, the person wears a heavy cast to support the broken bone and needs physical therapy to resume normal activities. People are often unaware of the frequent link between a broken bone and osteoporosis. It is known as a silent disease because it progresses without symptoms, osteoporosis involves the gradual loss of bone tissue or bone density and results in bones so fragile they break under the slightest strain. Consequently, falls are especially dangerous for people who are unaware that they have low bone density. If the patient and the doctor fail to connect the broken bone to osteoporosis, the chance to make a diagnosis with a bone density test and begin a prevention or treatment program is lost. Bone loss continues, and other bones may break.
Even though bones do not break after every fall, the person who has fallen and broken a bone nearly always becomes fearful of falling again. As a result, she or he may limit activities for the sake of “safety.” Among Americans age 65 and older, fall-related injuries are the leading cause of accidental death.
Why Do Elderly People Fall More Easily?
The Fall Itself
Several factors can lead to a fall. Loss of footing or traction is a common cause of falls. Loss of footing occurs when there is less than total contact between one’s foot and the ground or floor. Loss of traction occurs when one’s feet slip on wet or slippery ground or floor. Other examples of loss of traction include tripping, especially over uneven surfaces such as sidewalks, curbs, or floor elevations that result from carpeting, risers, or scatter rugs. Loss of footing also happens from using household items intended for other purposes – for example, climbing on kitchen chairs or balancing on boxes or books to increase height.
A fall may occur because a person’s reflexes have changed. As people age, reflexes slow down. Reflexes are automatic responses to stimuli in the environment. Examples of reflexes include quickly slamming on the car brakes when a child runs into the street or quickly moving out of the way when something accidentally falls. Aging slows a person’s reaction time and makes it harder to regain one’s balance following a sudden movement or shift of body weight.
Changes in muscle mass and body fat also can play a role in falls. As people get older, they lose muscle mass because they have become less active over time. Loss of muscle mass, especially in the legs, reduces one’s strength to the point where she or he is often unable to get up from a chair without assistance. In addition, as people age, they lose body fat that has cushioned and protected bony areas, such as the hips. This loss of cushioning also affects the soles of the feet, which upsets the person’s ability to balance. The gradual loss of muscle strength, which is common in older people but not inevitable, also plays a role in falling. Muscle-strengthening exercises can help people regain their balance, level of activity, and alertness no matter what their age.
Changes in vision also increase the risk of falling. Diminished vision can be corrected with glasses. However, often these glasses are bifocal or trifocal so that when the person looks down through the lower half of her or his glasses, depth perception is altered. This makes it easy to lose one’s balance and fall. To prevent this from happening, people who wear bifocals or trifocals must practice looking straight ahead and lowering their head. For many other older people, vision changes cannot be corrected completely, making even the home environment hazardous.
As people get older, they also are more likely to suffer from a variety of chronic medical conditions that often require taking several medications. People with chronic illnesses that affect their circulation, sensation, mobility, or mental alertness as well as those taking some types of medications are more likely to fall as a result of drug-related side effects such as dizziness, confusion, disorientation, or slowed reflexes.
Drinking alcoholic beverages also increases the risk of falling. Alcohol slows reflexes and response time; causes dizziness, sleepiness, or lightheadedness; alters balance; and encourages risky behaviors that can lead to falls.
The Force and Direction of a Fall
The force of a fall (how hard a person lands) plays a major role in determining whether or not a person will break a bone. For example, the greater the distance of the hip bone to the floor, the greater the risk of fracturing a hip, so tall people appear to have an increased risk of fracture when they fall. The angle at which a person falls also is important. For example, falling sideways or straight down is more risky than falling backward.
Protective responses, such as reflexes and changes in posture that break the fall, can reduce the risk of fracturing a bone. Individuals who land on their hands or grab an object on their descent are less likely to fracture their hip, but they may fracture their wrist or arm. Although these fractures are painful and interfere with daily activities, they do not carry the high risks that a hip fracture does.
The type of surface on which one lands also can affect whether or not a bone breaks. Landing on a soft surface is less likely to cause a fracture than landing on a hard surface.
Preliminary research suggests that by wearing trochanteric (hip) padding, people can decrease the chances of fracturing a hip after a fall. The energy created by the fall is distributed throughout the pad, lessening the impact to the hip. Further research is needed to fully evaluate the role of these devices in decreasing the risk of a hip fracture following a fall.
Although most serious falls happen when people are older, steps to prevent and treat bone loss and falls can never begin too early. Many people begin adulthood with less than optimal bone mass, so the fact that bone mass or density is lost slowly over time puts them at increased risk for fractures.
Bones that once were strong become so fragile and thin that they break easily. Activities that once were done without a second thought are now avoided for fear that they will lead to another fracture.
Preventing Falls and Fractures
Safety first to prevent falls: At any age, people can change their environments to reduce their risk of falling and breaking a bone.
Outdoor Safety Tips to Prevent Falls:
- In nasty weather, use a walker or cane for added stability.
- Wear warm boots with rubber soles for added traction.
- Look carefully at floor surfaces in public buildings. Many floors are made of highly polished marble or tile that can be very slippery. If floors have plastic or carpet runners in place, stay on them whenever possible.
- Identify community services that can provide assistance, such as 24-hour pharmacies and grocery stores that take orders over the phone and deliver. It is especially important to use these services in bad weather.
- Use a shoulder bag, fanny pack, or backpack to leave hands free.
- Stop at curbs and check their height before stepping up or down. Be cautious at curbs that have been cut away to allow access for bikes or wheelchairs. The incline up or down may lead to a fall.
Indoor Safety Tips to Prevent Falls:
- Keep all rooms free from clutter, especially the floors.
- Keep floor surfaces smooth but not slippery. When entering rooms, be aware of differences in floor levels and thresholds.
- Wear supportive, low-heeled shoes, even at home. Avoid walking around in socks, stockings, or floppy, backless slippers.
- Check that all carpets and area rugs have skid-proof backing or are tacked to the floor, including carpeting on stairs.
- Keep electrical and telephone cords and wires out of walkways.
- Be sure that all stairwells are adequately lit and that stairs have handrails on both sides. Consider placing fluorescent tape on the edges of the top and bottom steps.
For optimal safety, install grab bars on bathroom walls beside tubs, showers, and toilets. If you are unstable on your feet, consider using a plastic chair with a back and nonskid leg tips in the shower.
- Use a rubber bath mat in the shower or tub.
- Keep a flashlight with fresh batteries beside your bed.
- Add ceiling fixtures to rooms lit by lamps only, or install lamps that can be turned on by a switch near the entry point into the room. Another option is to install voice- or sound-activated lamps.
- Use bright light bulbs in your home.
- If you must use a step-stool for hard-to-reach areas, use a sturdy one with a handrail and wide steps. A better option is to reorganize work and storage areas to minimize the need for stooping or excessive reaching.
- Consider purchasing a portable phone that you can take with you from room to room. It provides security because you can answer the phone without rushing for it and you can call for help should an accident occur.
- Don’t let prescriptions run low. Always keep at least 1 week’s worth of medications on hand at home. Check prescriptions with your doctor and pharmacist to see if they may be increasing your risk of falling. If you take multiple medications, check with your doctor and pharmacist about possible interactions between the different medications.
Arrange with a family member or friend for daily contact. Try to have at least one person who knows where you are.
- If you live alone, you may wish to contract with a monitoring company that will respond to your call 24 hours a day.
- Watch yourself in a mirror. Does your body lean or sway back and forth or side to side? People with decreased ability to balance often have a high degree of body sway and are more likely to fall.
Practice Balance Exercises Every Day
While holding the back of a chair, sink, or countertop, practice standing on one leg at a time for a minute. Gradually increase the time. Try balancing with your eyes closed. Try balancing without holding on.
While holding the back of a chair, sink, or countertop, practice standing on your toes, then rock back to balance on your heels. Hold each position for a count of 10. While holding the back of chair, sink, or countertop with both hands, make a big circle to the left with hips, then repeat to the right. Do not move your shoulders or feet. Repeat five times.
Reducing the Force of a Fall
Take steps to lessen your chances of breaking a bone in the event that you do fall:
- Remember that falling sideways or straight down is more likely to result in a hip fracture than falling in other directions. If possible, try to fall forward or to land on your buttocks.
- If possible, land on your hands or use objects around you to break a fall.
- Walk carefully, especially on hard surfaces.
- When possible, wear protective clothing for padding.
- Talk to your doctor about whether you may be a candidate for hip padding