The 9th annual Falls Prevention Awareness Day will be observed on September 22, 2016—the first day of fall. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has declared September 19–23 as Falls Prevention Awareness Week. The events raise awareness about safety and how to prevent fall-related injuries among older adults. Since Falls Prevention Awareness Day was first observed in 2008, participation in the event has grown from 11 to 48 states, including the District of Columbia in 2015.
This year’s theme—Ready, Steady, Balance: Prevent Falls in 2016—reminds us about the importance of balance. Most people take balance for granted and navigate daily without thinking, effort or fear. For millions of others, poor balance is a problem. Some struggle with long-term dizziness or imbalance, while others suffer balance-related falls and injuries. Balance training can prevent falls and injuries for older adults.
The impact of a fall
Falls can result in broken bones, head injuries, and even death. They can have a devastating impact on one’s confidence and independence. Each year, thousands of older adults die as a result of breaking a hip. According to Public Health—Seattle & King County, falls account for 72 percent of all injury hospitalizations for older adults age 60 and older.
Exercise and fall prevention
Have you talked with your doctor about a fall? If you have, you already know that one of the most important remedies is exercise—especially strength and balance training. Research has demonstrated that structured exercises help reduce falls and may also prevent fall-related injuries. Although balance training is the main component of fall prevention programs, any regular exercise that improves endurance, muscle strength and flexibility can help prevent falls and related injuries.
In addition to better balance, the benefits of a regular structured exercise program include:
- Faster reaction time: Exercise can help you keep upright if you start to fall by putting out an arm quickly to grab something stable.
- Improved coordination: Exercise improves coordination, which directly helps prevent falls but can also help you roll rather than crash if you do go down.
- More muscle: Stronger and larger muscles can buffer the impact of a fall, providing some protection to bones and joints.
- Stronger bones: Resistance exercises strengthen bones, and stronger bones are more resistant to fractures.
- Better brain function: Regular exercise helps maintain brain function with age. Clearer thinking may help you avoid situations that increase fall risk.
Many evidence-based fall prevention programs are offered at senior centers and other locations throughout King County. These program help older adults gain strength, improve balance, and build confidence to help them live safer and healthier, and preserve their independence.
- A Matter of Balance: This eight-week structured group intervention emphasizes practical strategies to reduce the fear of falling and increase activity levels. Participants learn to view falls and fear of falling as controllable, and set realistic goals to increase activity, change their environment to reduce fall risk factors, and exercise to increase strength and balance.
- EnhanceWellness: This participant-centered, low-cost exercise program helps older adults, at all levels of fitness, become more active, energized and empowered to sustain independent lives.
- Stay Active and Independent for Life (SAIL): SAIL improves strength, balance, and fitness. The entire curriculum of activities can help improve strength and balance, if done regularly. SAIL is offered three times a week in one-hour classes. SAIL exercises can be done standing or sitting.
- Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance®: This evidence-based fall prevention program is for older adults and people with movement disorders. The methodology is designed to address postural instability and gait disorders and, subsequently, prevent falls. The program consists of a variety of activities that have been transformed, on the basis of Tai Ji Quan theory and clinical practice, into an integrated movement therapy for balance training.
- One Step Ahead Fall Prevention Program: King County residents age 50+ who are at high risk for falls can get a free in-home assessment and custom recommendations to improve safety. Low-income individuals may be eligible for installation of fall safety devices. To schedule an appointment, call Alan Abe, Falls Prevention Manager, at 206-263-8544 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Talk with your health care provider
In addition to regular exercise, there are many things you can do to prevent falls. Start small. Choose one risk factor to address and contact a health care professional who can help:
- Medications: Your pharmacist or doctor can review your medications to look at the side effects that may cause you to fall. There may be alternative medications or a different dosage that will work for you.
- Eye exams: An optometrist examines eyes for both vision and health problems, and can update your eyeglasses. Some also provide low-vision care and vision therapy. Good vision is central to keeping you steady on your feet. (While you’re at it, have your hearing checked, too!)
- Home assessment: An occupational therapist can do a home assessment and give you ideas to make your home safer to help decrease your risk of falling. Maybe there is clutter that should be removed or night lights that could be installed.
- Assistive devices: A physical therapist can teach you how to use your cane or walker at the proper height and help with balance, strength, and the ability to walk safely.
One more thing to consider
Well-fitting shoes provide better stability than socks, slippers, or bare feet—indoors or out. Feet continue to grow and widen as we age. Our footwear wears out. If you haven’t had your feet measured and purchased good shoes for awhile, take time to get this done. It’s an investment in a safe, secure future.
The bottom line is—if you sit less, move more, and focus on balance and strength training, your body will be stronger and fitter, and your risk of falling will decrease. Find something you enjoy and go for it!
Contributor Karen Winston is a planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. For more tips on falls prevention, read Karen’s article, Exercise Key to Falls Prevention, Brain Health (AgeWise King County, March 2016).