No one plans on falling, but it’s still the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for older adults. Here’s how to minimize your risk of serious harm.
When you were a kid, falling was a normal weekly occurrence. You’d fall off your bike, trip at the playground, or run too fast and end up tumbling down a hill. You’d simply get back up, brush off the dirt, and move on to the next adventure.
But as you age, you can’t bounce back quite as easily. In fact, falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries in adults older than 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In 2014 alone, about 27,000 older adults died because of falls, 2.8 million went to the emergency room for fall-related injuries, and 800,000 of these patients were subsequently hospitalized.
There’s good news too. There are ways to protect yourself before, during, and after a fall.
Why Older Adults Fall
The first step to reducing your risk of falling is understanding why you might fall.
“Studies suggest incorrectly shifting your weight from leg to leg as you walk or turn, tripping or stumbling, and bumping into something are the most common culprits,” explains James Borrelli, Ph.D., a researcher who studies fall landing and impact injuries at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
You can blame some of these issues on a lack of strength, especially in your glutes and hamstrings, says Amy Haynes, D.P.T., lead physical therapist of the Fall Prevention and Balance Program at TRIA Orthopaedic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. “This often-overlooked muscle group is significant for controlling balance, stability, and overall activity tolerance,” she says.
What you can do to help: Look for these four signs your glutes are weak. If you learn they are, make it a point to incorporate lower-body strength training into your weekly routine.
It never hurts to talk to a physical therapist or trainer to get exercise suggestions, or you can start with this 20-minute build-your-backside workout. The four moves target your glutes, hamstrings, and lats in your middle back—all important muscles on their own, but they also link up to help control total-body strength, stability, and function.
“Another common reason for falls is decreased ankle mobility and strength,” Haynes says. “People catch their toes on a threshold, rug, or small lip, and don’t have enough ankle motion or strength to lift their toes high enough to clear the obstacle, and thus fall forward.”
Foot strength and mobility drills can go a long way in helping improve this problem. Learn more in our guide to four foot exercises you should do every day. They only take 10 minutes.
What else can help: minimizing home hazards like loose rugs and cluttered pathways. Check out these six steps to prevent falls at home.
So, Is There a Proper Way to Fall?
When you lose your balance unpredictably, everything happens incredibly fast, Borrelli says. You don’t always have time to make a quick enough decision. But you can certainly try.
Your first option: “If you have the time, curl your body into a ball as best as you can,” Haynes says. “This is to avoid landing on an outstretched part of your body that’s weaker and most susceptible to a fracture.”
Borrelli echoes this point and emphasizes that the best thing you can do is avoid stiffening up.
Haynes and Borelli agree your main goal should be to protect your spine and hips. In other words, if you have to choose between breaking your hip or breaking your wrist—even though they are both serious fractures—you’re better off doing damage to your wrist to help absorb some of the impact, Borrelli says.
“Research has shown that a majority of adults who sustain a broken hip from a fall will not return to independent living, and nearly half will die within one year of their fracture,” Haynes says.
What to Do Right After a Fall
“After you’ve fallen, take a minute to gain your bearings, calm yourself, and assess for any localized or acute fractures,” Haynes says. “Make sure you’re not dizzy, lightheaded, or unaware of your surroundings. If any of these apply, call for help and get into a safe position out of further harm’s way.”
If you are safe, slowly raise yourself into a seated position for at least 60 seconds to get your blood pressure under control, she says. After you feel stable, find a solid object nearby to hold on to as you get back up—a park bench, a wall, or the edge of a tub, for example. Put your weight on your strongest leg and the object you’re holding on to. Then find a place you can rest and recover.
What to Do in the Days and Weeks After a Fall
If you’re injured, you’ll want to work with your doctor to resume activity safely. Ask these six questions after a fall-related injury.
But what if you weren’t injured? You’ll still want to let your doctor know. After a fall, many people become less active for fear of falling again—but this can actually make you weaker and more likely to take another tumble, says the CDC.
A smarter approach: Work with your doctor to address any underlying issues that increase your risk of falls and get guidelines for how you can exercise safely.
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