The numbers don't lie; the Centers for Disease Control has reported that one-third of people over the age of 65 experience a fall each year. In 2010 alone, these falls among older adults accounted for roughly 3 million visits to the ER and almost $30 billion in direct medical costs. The CDC is anticipating this number to reach a whopping $67.7 billion by 2020.
The American Recall Center states that many of these falls occur due to environmental hazards both inside and outside the home, including poor lighting, buckled rugs and carpeting, cracks in the sidewalk or driveway and general clutter. While most of these falls might not result in serious injury, they can have a major psychological impact. In fact, roughly 25 percent of people aged 75 or over unnecessarily restrict their activities because of fear of falling.
Falls are not a rite of passage that comes with age; with a little bit of education and awareness, falls can be prevented. The trouble is finding an effective way to spread the word.
In a study published by the National Council on Aging, it was discovered that health care providers weren't focused on prevention as much as treatment. It was reported that in the state of Washington, "health care providers don't ask about falls -- it's too complicated or time-consuming. Seniors don't tell their health-care providers about falls -- they are too embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid of losing their independence."
So what are the best methods of prevention? Many local governments across the U.S. are trying to answer that question themselves.
In 2010, the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health was awarded a $1.5 million grant by the CDC to study the effectiveness of existing fall prevention programs. In collaboration with the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, researchers have been studying two specific programs that are currently in place: Healthy Steps for Older Adults, a four-hour workshop, and Healthy Steps in Motion, an eight week exercise program design. The researchers found that these programs have helped to reduce elderly falls by 17 percent.
Over 600 miles to the west, researchers in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, created a program called the Lifestyle and Functional Exercise program, or LiFE. Originally adapted from an Australian fall prevention program, LiFE is an in-home program for people aged 70 and beyond that uses exercise in seemingly mundane daily activities, like balancing on one leg while brushing their teeth.
"There are several programs that reduce fall risk, but I was most intrigued by LiFE because it integrates exercise into daily activities," said Dr. Irene Hamrick, lead researcher in this study. "Trying LiFE myself, I identified some balance weaknesses...and improved them, as well as increased my bicycling speed by 20 percent."
Teresa Radebaugh, Director of the Regional Institute on Aging at Wichita State University in Kansas, has also been working on creating a program that would have an impact on keeping seniors balanced. Radebaugh and her team put together the Falling Less in Kansas Toolkit. The 56-page, spiral-bound toolkit -- also available online -- aims to help you assess your risk of falls and then develops a solution for you to avoid falls through exercises focused on balance, a medication side-effects inventory, identifying vision problems and increasing home safety. While the toolkit was designed for people to use on their own, the program encourages caregivers and medical professionals to get involved in the process as well.
According to the State Department of New York, falls kill two older New Yorkers, hospitalize 140 and send 223 to the ER everyday. The Health Foundation for Western and Central has been working tirelessly to lower those numbers and protect hundreds of elderly New Yorkers from falls. They've created a Fall Prevention: Step Up to Falls program, which offers grants to local agencies to help them better prevent falls by targeting the major risk factors and by educating doctors, home healthcare workers and family caregivers.
Ohio has taken it one step further by implementing a state-wide initiative called Steady U through the Ohio Department of Aging. Steady U focuses on fall prevention with a community approach and states clearly on their website that "everyone -- from the individual and his family, to doctors and nurses, to business owners and managers, to community leaders and more -- has a role to play in preventing falls." Through their website they offer a host of resources to back this statement up, including tip sheets, websites, government partner agencies, power point presentations and promotional materials.
"We know that falls are the leading cause of injuries, ER visits and death," said John Ratliff, Assistant Chief of Communications and Government Outreach with the Ohio Department of Aging. "Coupled with the fact that our population is rapidly aging, it's our responsibility to try new, innovative approaches to education about fall prevention to help our elders."
The elderly population here in the U.S. is currently hovering around 13 percent and is expected to climb to almost 20 percent by 2030 when the last of the Baby Boomers has turned 65. Many states understand the toll that age will have on their residents, both physically and financially, and are being proactive in spreading awareness in an effort to minimize the damage caused by age-related falls.
While these local efforts have been proving to be successful, national efforts have fallen short. After the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, the country began to pay more attention to the needs of it's most senior citizens. In 1964, a special committee on aging was formed in the Senate to assess and recommend various services for seniors. The first two recommendations were "authorization to provide financial assistance for statewide and community planning and coordination of programs in the field of aging," and the enactment of legislation "authorizing Federal grants to State and local governmental agencies... to conduct research and development projects in the field of aging."
Fifty years later, these recommendations have finally become realities. But is your local government doing enough to help prevent you from falling?