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Falls, Injuries and Anxiety: Breaking a Vicious Cycle

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Falls and Spinal Cord Injuries

Aging is easy, until it's not. All it really takes is one accident to start a chain reaction that can affect every aspect of your health and well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries for people aged 65 and older.

And now, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, falls have now surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of spinal cord trauma among older adults in the United States.

The researchers analyzed data from over 40,000 adults who had been treated in the ER for spinal cord injuries between 2007 and 2009. They found that spinal cord injuries, in general, for patients aged 65 and older increased by 11 percent over the course of the study -- rising from 79 people per million up to 88 people per million. Spinal cord injuries from falls were at 30 percent for those over the age of 65 during the study period, up from 23.6 percent when the study began in 2007.

Falls and Anxiety

Once someone has experienced the trauma of a fall, they can develop a fear of falling again. The CDC also reports that "this fear may cause them to limit their activities, which leads to reduced mobility and loss of physical fitness, and in turn increases their actual risk of falling."

Living with the fear of falling also likely increases feelings of anxiety, which could lead a physician to prescribe anti-anxiety medication, such as Xanax. Xanax, along with other benzodiazepines, has been the focus of recent studies that have demonstrated that these types of drugs cause higher risks of falls and dementia.

Dangers of Anxiety Medications

Researchers at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands found that the elderly were 3.5 times more likely to experience a fall if they were taking psychotropic drug classes, which includes short-acting benzodiazepines. The authors of this study tracked the health of over 400 elderly patients between January 2011 and April 2012, recording the frequency of falls in the previous year, medications and performed logistic regression analysis.

Out of the total 404 patients, 238, or 58.9 percent, had experienced one or more falls in the past year, and 139, or 34 percent, used psychotropic medication. The researchers concluded that "this relation should be explicitly recognized by doctors prescribing for older people, and by older people themselves. If possible such medication should be avoided for elderly patients especially with other risk factors for falling."

In a study published in the British Medical Journal, French researchers followed 1,063 participants with a mean age of 78.2 over the course of 15 years. All of the participants did not show signs of dementia at the start of the study and did not begin taking benzodiazepines until at least the third year of participation.

The results?

During a 15 year follow-up, 253 incident cases of dementia were confirmed. New use of benzodiazepines was associated with an increased risk of dementia... Results of a complementary nested case-control study showed that ever use of benzodiazepines was associated with an approximately 50% increase in the risk of dementia compared with never users.

The authors of this study also urged doctors to exercise caution in prescribing benzodiazepines to elderly patients.

Breaking the Cycle

These studies have lead the American Geriatrics Society to issue a general warning to seniors, "...benzodiazepines increase risk of cognitive impairment, delirium, falls, fractures and motor vehicle accidents in older adults."

And thus, starting the whole cycle over again.

So, regardless of what came first -- the injury or the anxiety -- it's important to know the realities of aging in the modern world. Learn to let your limitations evolve as you age; begin listening to your body and consider alternative options from prescription drugs for coping with stress and anxiety.

So, what to do? Rachel Goldberg, a Certified Yoga Therapist and Founder of YogaWings, recommends establishing a regular yoga practice, regardless of your current age. "The practice of yoga creates awareness in the body and mind. By gentle movements and stretches, you're better able to identify limitations and changes within the body," says Goldberg. "The various bends, twists and stretches that yoga practice offer help to keep the joints lubricated and the spine supple. Yoga also strengthens muscles and protects the bones. The yoga practice involves many breathing exercises, which have calming effects on the respiratory system and nervous system; breathing practices are proven to lower anxiety and stress." Goldberg went on to mention that some yoga practices have been specifically developed for seniors -- like Chair Yoga -- so there's no excuse for holding back.

One decision to try something new can start a positive chain reaction, thus breaking a vicious cycle, and keeping you living a healthier -- and happier -- life.