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Exercise Key to Falls Prevention, Brain Health

happy senior couple hiking on the mountain

Falls are a preventable public health concern impacting quality of life, health care costs, and premature institutionalization. The prevalence of falls among older adults is increasing along with the increase of the age 60 and older population. In Washington State, one in every three people age 65 and older living in the community falls each year, and one in every five falls result in a serious injury.

In King County, 21 percent of adults 60 and older reported having fallen in the previous three months, and about 20 percent of those falls resulted in an injury that limited activities or made them see a doctor. There is also a higher prevalence of falls for people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive impairments.

But, there’s hope! Falls are preventable. They are not an inevitable part of aging. The key components of falls prevention are:

  1. Make your home safer by clearing clutter and removing throw rugs.
  2. Have your vision checked yearly.
  3. Have your medications checked regularly by your doctor or pharmacist.
  4. Begin a regular exercise program.

Research has proven that there are many benefits to physical activity and regular exercise. People who are more fit have better brain health, even in the early stages of dementia. Exercise slows the progression of cognitive decline, increases physical performance and improves brain health.

Exercise also helps keep muscles, joints, and our hearts in good shape, helps maintain a healthy body weight and improves sleep, too. Other benefits of regular exercise (especially aerobic and strength training, and dose matters—the more the better) include:

  • Improved learning.
  • Improved circulation and reduced blood pressure.
  • Reduced risk for strokes, as well as the risk of dying from heart diseases.
  • Improved mood, physical function and overall health.

How much exercise do older adults need?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. That sounds like a lot; however, you can break it down and spread it out over a week. Ten minutes at a time is fine. A structured program is the best option and social support is important, too. If you have a caregiver, try being active together. Physical activity and exercise are good for caregivers, too!

Interested in participating in a research study?

At the January 2016 meeting for the Washington State Older Adult Falls Prevention Network, Ellen McGough, PT, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Washington (UW) School of Rehabilitative Medicine, presented four current UW studies. These studies are specifically designed for caregivers and individuals with mild to moderate memory loss and are funded by the National Institute on Aging, and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Reducing Disability in Alzheimer’s Disease (RDAD)

  • Purpose: To determine the effectiveness of an in-home exercise and caregiver training program for people with dementia and their caregivers.
  • Involvement: There is an initial in-home consent visit. Both the person with dementia and their caregiver will meet with a trained coach in their home for nine, one-hour sessions over six weeks. The caregiver will complete five 30-minute telephone interviews over one year. Both the person with dementia and their caregiver will complete three in-home mobility testing sessions over three months.
  • Eligibility: Participants have a diagnosis of dementia, a caregiver and you can both walk.
  • Department: School of Nursing, Psychosocial & Community Health
  • Information: Contact Amy Cunningham at 206-616-5550 or

Functional Mobility in Older Adults with Cognitive Impairment

  • Purpose: To study mobility in older adults with varying levels of memory loss.
  • Involvement: Three sessions to test your mobility. The first session will be in your home. The second visit will take place at the UW. Round-trip taxi will provide transportation to the UW. The third session will be in your home. You will receive a $20 Visa gift card after completing each session (total $60).
  • Eligibility: Participants are between 70 and 95 years old and have memory problems. You can walk household distances.
  • Department: School of Rehabilitative Medicine
  • Information: Contact Amy Cunningham at 206-616-5550 or

Close-up of elder woman training with physiotherapist

FACT—Falls and Cognitive Training

  • Purpose: To determine if a cognitive training intervention reduces the risk of falls and fall related outcomes for older adults with cognitive impairment.
  • Involvement: Over 12 weeks, participants will be taught how to use a computerized cognitive training program and asked to use it three times a week for eight weeks (each session is 15–20 minutes). The study will include four testing sessions to assess mobility and balance and the cognitive impact of the intervention (either in your home or at the School of Nursing). Participants will receive a $25 grocery card every month for the four months of their participation (total $100).
  • Eligibility: Participants are 62 years of age or older, have experienced a recent fall or have difficulty with walking or balance.
  • Department: School of Nursing, Biobehavioral Nursing and Health Systems
  • Information: Contact Adrienne James at 206-913-9560 or

Neuroimaging and Function

  • Purpose: To study relationships between brain regions, physical performance and cognitive function in older adults with memory problems.
  • Involvement: Two visits to the UW Health Sciences. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) will be used to image your brain. Walking tests will be used in a motion analysis lab to assess walking, and participants will be interviewed about their activities. A round-trip taxi will provide transportation. Participants will receive $50 for the first visit and $30 for the second visit (total $80).
  • Eligibility: Participants are 75 or older, have memory problems, can walk household distances, and are able to have a family member or friend attend each session.
  • Department: School of Rehabilitative Medicine
  • Information: Monica Smersh at 206-543-6995 or Ellen McGough at 206-598-6139.

For more information about falls prevention programs and the Washington State Older Adult Falls Prevention Network, e-mail Mary Borges at



Contributor Karen Winston is the lead Aging and Disability Services planner on falls prevention. For more information, visit

Those interested in participating in studies may also like to read Participate in a Research Study? It May Improve Your Own Halth as Well as Others’ (AgeWise King County, February 2015)