“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” That catch phrase from a late 1980s medical alarm company commercial has become part of American pop culture and provided material for numerous satires and parodies— but the sad fact is, falls among older adults can lead to serious injury, hospitalization and even death — something that is no joking matter.
One in every three adults age 65 and older falls annually, and it is the leading cause of injury-related death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2008, more than 19,700 seniors in the United States died from unintentional falls. Non-fatal accidents can lead to a number of injuries — everything from lacerations to head traumas. Fractures to the spine, hip, forearm, leg, ankle, pelvis, upper arm and hand are also common. In 2009, 2.2 million seniors were treated in emergency rooms due to non-fatal falls, and more than 581,000 of those patients needed to be hospitalized, according to the CDC.
Most seniors with hip fractures are hospitalized for about two weeks, with about half of those being unable to live independently at home after their fall, according to MedicineNet.com an online healthcare media company.
In addition to physical injuries, falls can cause emotional trauma and fear. Many older adults who have taken a tumble, even if they weren’t injured, develop a fear that it could happen again, leading them to limit their activities and become less mobile, the CDC says.
Not only does age play a role in fall frequency and extent of injury, but so do gender and race.
Women are more likely than men to get injured from falling and are twice as likely to suffer a fracture, but men are more likely to die from a spill, according to the CDC. Elderly caucasians are about 2.5 times as likely to die from falls as older African-Americans, while Hispanic seniors are less likely to suffer a fatal fall than non-Hispanics, the CDC says.
Someone who knows firsthand just how scary a fall can be is Bishop Melvin Artis, 73, of St. Albans. Early last year, his knee gave out and he fell down six flights of stairs at the subway station at 59th Street and Columbus Circle in Manhattan, fracturing several ribs.
“The fall was really traumatic,” Artis said Monday. “I was going at a constant pace, and I wasn’t listening to what my body was telling me — to slow down. I felt tired, and I was getting dizzy spells, but I didn’t pay any attention. If I would have paid attention, I would not have fallen down those steps.”
The minister at Greater Universal Highway Deliverance Church in St. Albans didn’t want to be taken to the hospital initially, but police officers at the scene convinced him that it was in his best interest to go. He spent three days at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, and made a full recovery.
Luckily, falls are usually preventable, and there is a lot of information and tips out there on how to do just that. The CDC lists a number of them on its website and the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has a whole health bulletin on the subject. Both agencies agree on several key steps.
It is important to exercise regularly, because physical activity increases muscle strength and balance, thereby reducing the risk of a fall. Any amount of exercise, even a brisk walk a few times a week, can help improve or prevent conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Even though many people over 65 have taken a fall at some point, less than half are likely to tell their doctor about it, according to the CDC, and that can be a mistake. There are plenty of medications or combinations of drugs out there that can cause side effects such as drowsiness or dizziness, so it’s a good idea to remind your physician to periodically check and review all the medications you are taking, according to the DOH.
Vision can deteriorate with age or due to some medical conditions like diabetes, so it is important to have one’s eyes checked regularly. Good eyesight reduces the chance of tripping over a piece of furniture or even the family dog, or colliding with another object or person.
For people who are 65 years of age or older, 60 percent of fatal falls occur in the home, 30 percent occur in public places, and 10 percent take place in healthcare institutions, according to MedicineNet.com
Homes can be made safer by eliminating anything that might be considered a tripping hazard — throw rugs, wires, and any kind of clutter such as papers, boxes, books or shoes. Adding grab bars inside and outside of the tub or shower and next to the toilet can also reduce the risk of a fall as well as installing staircase railings and improving lighting.
The kitchen can also be a room rife with accidents just waiting to happen. Reaching for an object on a high shelf while trying to balance oneself on a chair, rather than using a sturdy step stool, can be a recipe for disaster.
The DOH also recommends a number of other general safety tips including getting up slowly after sitting or lying down; wearing shoes, as opposed to slippers, both inside and outside the house; keeping emergency numbers in large print near the phone; placing a phone near the floor, so it will be in easy reach just in case you can’t get up; and wearing some type of alarm device that will summon emergency services in case of an accident.
To lower the risk of hip fractures, seniors should make sure that they are getting enough calcium and vitamin C from their diet or by taking supplements; doing weight-bearing exercises; and getting regular screenings and treatment for osteoporosis. .