Every year, millions of senior citizens fall — threatening their health, independence and even their lives. Fall injuries also rack up $31 billion annually in medical expenses, which is expected to rise as 10,000 people in the U.S. turn 65 every day.
“The best medical treatment for injuries from falls is to prevent them from happening in the first place,” said geriatrician Sonja Rosen, MD, associate medical director, Geriatric Care Programs and chief of Geriatric Medicine for Cedars-Sinai Medical Group. “Seniors who have fallen — or are afraid they will — should get a comprehensive risk assessment from a geriatrician, who can determine the causes of their falls and give them a treatment plan.”
A falls assessment includes an in-office health screening to document previous spills, review the patient’s social and physical movement history, evaluate the patient’s need for walking or balance aids, and take stock of a patient’s medications — such as sedatives — that can make seniors unsteady.
Next, a functional review tests patients’ strength, balance and gait. Geriatricians watch patients stand from a seated position with feet together and arms across their chest. Patients also are timed getting out of a chair and walking several feet.
Following the assessment, a patient might be prescribed medication or nutritional supplements or be taken off a medication that increases their risk for falls. Assistive walking devices like a cane might be recommended, as well as physical therapy or an exercise program designed to increase balance or strength.
The comprehensive evaluation doesn’t stop at the doctor’s office. The physician may order a home health and safety visit with an occupational therapist, who can recommend household modifications like a grab bar in the shower. Case managers and social workers also can connect patients to community resources for food or help getting to doctor appointments, if needed.
“Falls are common but never normal with aging,” Rosen said. “In many cases, we can prevent falls by following a few commonsense guidelines.”
The guidelines Rosen shares with her falls-assessment patients are:
- Avoid household hazards. Most people fall at home. Get rid of loose rugs and declutter hallways.
- Clear a path at night. Keep an open walkway to the bathroom and turn on a dim light.
- If you fall, let your doctor know. Falls are common but never normal.
- Ask your doctor to review your medications. Certain drugs can cause falls.
- If you have a cane or walker, always use it as directed. Nobody knows when they’ll fall.
Research shows that effective interventions reduce the frequent falling rate of older patients by 30 to 40 percent.
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