September 26th, 2012 at 10:00 am
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Helping elders avoid falls: what works and doesn’t work

by Dorian Martin

Dad fell recently. He went to sit down on a chair in the breakfast room, but missed the seat and ended up plunking down on a cardboard filing box instead. His ego was bruised, but — fortunately — no bones were broken.

So what steps can be taken to help Dad and other elders remain safely on their feet? Researchers from New Zealand, Australia and the UK reviewed 159 studies involving 79,193 seniors; in Interventions for preventing falls in older people living in the community, they provide some interesting insights as to what works and what doesn’t.

Exercise tops the list

Let’s start with what does work. Not surprisingly, the research revealed that exercise — whether done at home or in a group setting — significantly reduced the rate of falls. Tai Chi was one type of exercise that lowered seniors’ risk of falling. These findings echo a study highlighted on the American Family Physician website that suggests the best way to avoid falls is for elders to participate in an exercise program at least twice a week. The NIH SeniorHealth website confirms that exercise can help to prevent falls by improving balance and strengthening muscles.

In addition to balance and vision problems, the Interventions report lists dementia as one reason for the increase in falls as people get older. In another blog post, I explore how exercise offers potential benefits beyond preventing falls for individuals with dementia.

Is your home safe for elders?

Take a real look at your home environment and check for hazards. The review of 159 studies also showed that home safety assessments and modifications helped reduce falls, especially among elders who were at a higher risk of falling. Home safety interventions were more effective when they involved an occupational therapist.

Exercise beats out other theories

Interestingly, other interventions that are often publicized had mixed results. Here’s what the researchers found:

  1. Vitamin D supplements. In 20 studies, taking a vitamin D supplement to boost muscle strength did not reduce the rate of falls or the risk of falls. The researchers suggest that these supplements may help elders who have lower vitamin D levels.
  2. Correcting vision problems. Some interventions designed to treat vision issues actually caused an increase in the rate of falls. However, one study found a reduction in falls for a subgroup that had regularly worn multi-focal glasses but changed to single-lens glasses. Another study showed a lower rate of falls for women who had cataract surgery in one eye, whereas surgery on the second eye did not make a difference.
  3. Changes in medications. One limited study determined that gradual withdrawal from psychotropic medications reduced the rate of falls, but did not lower the risk of falling.

After reading this research on the importance of exercise and home safety assessments, I’m focusing on two steps to help Dad remain upright. The first is to get him on a regular exercise schedule. And the second step involves organizing Dad’s filing boxes in the breakfast room in order to lower the risk of falls.

Posted in Caregiving, Exercise | 1 Comment »
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One Response to “Helping elders avoid falls: what works and doesn’t work”

  1. Kara

    These are really great things to be aware of as a caregiver or anyone who lives with a senior.

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