February 15, 2012
Falls are among the leading causes of death and injury in the older population. But families can greatly reduce the risks of accidents by ensuring that their older loved ones have the proper medical care and support.
Q. Grandma Inez suddenly seems unsteady on her feet. She had tried to stay active by walking and gardening, but I noticed recently that she seems to be doing neither. Inez also sometimes holds furniture or touches the wall as she moves about in her house, which looks more cluttered than usual to me. Addressing the balance problem, she insists that it’s normal for someone who is nearly 81. Should I be concerned?
Many people experience problems with their sense of balance as they get older. You should set up a doctor’s appointment for Grandma Inez and go with her. A doctor can determine if she has a serious balance problem involving vertigo, viral or bacterial ear infections, Meniere’s disease, chronic dizziness or drug interactions. A balance disorder also may be caused by a head injury or blood circulation disorders that affect the inner ear or brain, medical experts report.
In addition, problems in the visual and skeletal systems and the nervous systems can be the source of some posture and balance problems, medical experts say. A circulatory system disorder, such as low blood pressure, can lead to a feeling of dizziness when we suddenly stand up. Problems in the skeletal or visual systems, such as arthritis or eye muscle imbalance, also may cause balance problems. However, many balance disorders can begin suddenly and with no obvious cause.
Gently explain to Grandma Inez that falls can be serious business, especially as we age. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one out of three adults 65 and older falls each year, but less than half talk to healthcare providers about it. Among those 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of injury death. They also are the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma. More than 19,700 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries in 2008. Just three years ago, 2.2 million nonfatal fall injuries among older adults were treated in emergency departments, and more than 581,000 of those patients were hospitalized.
The CDC offers these tips on how older adults can remain independent and reduce their chances of falling:
- Exercise regularly. It is important that the exercises focus on increasing leg strength and improving balance, and that they get more challenging over time. Tai Chi programs are especially good.
- Ask your loved one’s doctors or pharmacists to review her medicines — both prescription and over-the counter — to identify medicines that may cause side effects or interactions such as dizziness or drowsiness.
- Have her eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year and update her eyeglasses to maximize her vision. Consider getting a pair with single vision distance lenses for some activities such as walking outside.
- Make her home safer by reducing tripping hazards, adding grab bars inside and outside the tub or shower and next to the toilet, adding stair railings and improving the lighting in the home.
- To lower her hip fracture risk, make sure she is getting adequate calcium and vitamin D from food and/or from supplements, and that she gets screened and treated for osteoporosis.
Grandma Inez might benefit from having a Home Instead CAREGiverSM — someone who can help clear her home of unnecessary clutter that can cause falls and serve as a second set of eyes and ears to keep her safe.
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