Sensible strategies to reduce your fall risk

A few weeks ago at our editorial headquarters in Baltimore, they experienced a surprise, early snowfall. So, it’s a good time to talk a bit more about how to prevent falls and injuries in hazardous conditions — both inside and outside your home.

Of course, most of the previously published research on falls focuses on their short-term consequences, such as acute injuries — including sprains and strains.

Indeed, falls are, by far, the most common cause of acute injury in older adults. And in any given year, about 29 million Americans fall, resulting in seven million injuries. (And those are only the falls that are treated and reported.)

Some experts suggest the scope of the problem is comparable to Alzheimer’s disease, Type II diabetes, and influenza. And the medical costs related to falls reach an estimated $50 billion annually.

But a new study caught my eye because it focuses on the long-term effects of falling among the elderly…including a worrisome increase in mortality risk.

Beyond sprains and strains: The long-term effects of falls

For this new study, researchers analyzed a nationwide database on falls, injuries, hospitalizations, re-injuries, and deaths over an 11-year period. It included nearly 100,000 older adults ages 65 years and over.

The researchers found a significant link between suffering an initial, serious, non-fatal injury and experiencing another injury, hospitalization, or even fatality up to 11 years later. Even minor injuries were significantly associated with higher risks of suffering a later injury and even death.

So, why does suffering an initial fall — even one with just minor injuries — lead to such dire consequences more than a decade later?

Well, researchers are beginning to think there’s a psychological component…

After suffering a fall, men and women often become fearful of suffering another fall. So, they begin to purposefully limit themselves physically. Perhaps by going out and about a little less frequently…or avoiding demanding physical tasks around the house.

This limiting of physical activity gradually leads to a decline in health and functional capacity, which can then ultimately lead to death. And sadly, this limiting can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where eventually you become completely incapable of performing the tasks you’re avoiding.

To learn how to avoid dangerous, debilitating, and potentially deadly falls well into old age, refer back to my Daily Dispatch from last month, “Avoid a dangerous fall with four simple safety tips.”

Of course, preventing falls is just one important step in living a longer, healthier life.

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“What Doesn’t Kill You Doesn’t Make You Stronger: The Long-Term Consequences of Nonfatal Injury for Older Adults,” Gerontologist, 2018; 58(4): 759-767