Today’s society is more active than ever, but inevitably every year more than two million Americans fall and sustain serious injury, costing the healthcare system in excess of $3 billion dollars. Hidden costs affecting the individual include pain, disability, lawsuits, loss of independence, deterioration in well-being, and the impact on other family members. Nonetheless, falls are predictable and preventable, even for older adults.
Falls and the resulting injuries are among the most serious health issues affecting the elderly population. The increased risk for falls in the elderly can be attributed, in general, to the body’s deterioration due to inactivity and a slow deterioration of the central nervous system (CNS). For example, the sensory cells in the ears’ balance system gradually decrease in number and cannot be replaced. The nerves that carry sensory information to the brain lose fiber and nerve cells, leading to problems with the function of complex brain interconnections. In addition, nerve endings lose their ability to produce the chemicals responsible for the transmission of information. This process accelerates after age 50.
Many systemic diseases can affect the CNS and sense organs and therefore increase the likelihood of instability and the risk of falling. In addition, muscle strength gradually decreases with age and joint tendons and ligaments lose their flexibility, resulting in limited range of motion. The combined effects of bone and joint disease and inactivity can result in a body that can no longer carry out complex motion commands initiated by the brain. Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (hardening of the arteries) is another disease process that can affect balance. It is accelerated by high blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes. Although artery hardening gradually increases during middle age, there is a point at which a slight additional decrease in blood flow causes serious vascular impairment, such as stroke.
Head injuries, sometimes caused by falls, can damage the sense organs in the inner ears, or the brain itself. Therefore, physical activity is very important for injury recovery to the sensory systems. The general debility of aging can negatively affect recovery if it results in a decreased level of activity. Often, injuries to the knees, hips, and back do not completely heal, leaving some limitation of motion.
Arthritis can cause permanent crippling, nonreversible, effects on the bones and joints of the hips, knees, and ankles, and osteoporosis can lead to bone weakness. Together, these ailments can dramatically increase the probability of serious injury from a fall or cause a spontaneous fracture that might lead to a fall.
In this time of specialization, it is possible for a patient to receive from several physicians prescriptions that might have additive side effects on the brain and sensory function. Therefore, patients should keep a complete list of all their medications and dosages, and make this list available to each physician they consult. Coordination of all medications through a single primary care physician would help avoid adverse drug reactions to the brain and sensory functions. The list should include:
All correctable problems should be treated. That includes visual correction with proper eyeglasses, improvement of hearing by hearing aids, adjustment or elimination of medications, and treatment of any other disease which could impair balance.
Rehabilitation includes increasing the range of motion, as well as physical strength. A very important part of rehabilitation is overcoming the fear of falling, thus avoiding further injury. Walkers and canes can aid stability, while simple changes in the home, such as installing hand-holds in bathrooms or along walls, could decrease the likelihood of falling and increase confidence. But keep in mind, drastically changing a familiar environment often hampers recovery. As soon as possible, rehabilitation should include family members and home support groups. Rapid return to physical activity and social interaction with family and community can often stop the vicious spiral into inactivity, reclusiveness, and progressive deterioration that falls and injuries cause.
As many of the problems responsible for falling develop during early and middle age, initial efforts to prevent injuries should begin at a younger age. Many of the changes in muscle, bone, and the central nervous system are not inevitable results of aging, but are brought on by inactive lifestyles and self-inflicted damage from smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise. Although hardening of the arteries is occasionally hereditary, in most cases it can be reduced by diets low in cholesterol and saturated fatty acids, as well as regular physical exercise.