The Risks and Costs of Falls for Older Adults

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” The words of Ms. Fletcher in LifeCall’s medical alert commercials, which spotlighted the risks and costs of falls for older adults in the late 1980s, still resonate today. Falls are on the rise, and it’s no laughing matter. Fortunately, while the risks are as high as ever, protective technology has improved by leaps and bounds. These tools help seniors to remain independent by providing the peace of mind that help is close at hand.

According to the CDC, falls among adults 65 or over caused 34,000 deaths in 2019, making it the leading cause of injury for that demographic. This is somewhat surprising, given that conditions such as dementia receive more attention than the risks and costs of falls for older adults. Given that falls cause more deaths than any single disease, it seems wise to take proactive measures to improve our balance. We can do this in the same way we optimize our lifestyles to avoid disease.

With so much at stake, it is critical for seniors and their loved ones to understand the risks and costs of falls. They should also be aware that there are simple changes they can make to help mitigate their vulnerability. This article explores the risks and costs of falls, as well as preventative measures that seniors can take to decrease their odds of suffering a fall.

Table of Contents

The Risks and Costs of Falls for Older Adults

Risks of Falls

The 34,000 falls that caused death in 2019 are only the tip of the iceberg. According to the CDC, 3 million emergency dispatchers were sent help to seniors who had fallen in 2019. The total cost of those falls was over $50 billion, a reminder that the risks and costs of falls are significant.

Falls lead to a variety of issues. According to the CDC, 95% of broken hips are the result of a fall. Falls are also the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries. And while broken hips and traumatic brain injuries are the biggest risks, falls can also result in broken wrists, arms, and ankles.

The CDC estimates that one in five falls results in a serious injury, and with 800,000 annual hospitalizations due to falls, that is easy to believe. Even if a senior escapes injury from a fall, there could be mental consequences. If the fear of another fall causes a senior to avoid activities that could challenge their balance, they may grow frailer and be at greater risk if another fall occurs.

Costs of Falls

The vast majority of the $50 billion spent annually on fall-related costs are for non-fatal injuries. While that figure is significant on its own, it only accounts for the direct medical costs. That number leaves out the long-term costs of disability, which include increased dependence on others, an inability to work, and a decreased quality of life.

When we break costs down to the individual level, the average cost of hospitalization due to a fall is $30,000. That figure also increases with age. The greatest risks are loss of life, mental facilities, or mobility, but adding a financial burden to any physical or mental injuries will make an already difficult situation more stressful.

The aftermath of a fall can be difficult for both the injured individual and their loved ones. The injured individual may be unable to perform basic tasks. They could also need professional assistance with their rehabilitation, as well as transportation to these appointments.

Your doctor can evaluate your risk of falling, and help to assess the steps you need to take to protect yourself. This is an area of your health where it is wise to be proactive, as the risks and costs of falls are significant. If you wait until after you fall and suffer an injury, your options may be significantly more limited.

5 Preventative Measures to Mitigate Risks and Costs of Falls

As you might guess, many issues contribute to falls. We can group these issues into three general areas: physical, mental, and nutrition/medication.

On the physical level, any condition associated with aging or frailty can increase the risks and costs of falls. Balance problems, foot pain, lower-body weakness, and vision problems can all increase the odds that an individual falls and suffers an injury.

The mental aspect might be less obvious, but can be equally problematic. For instance, if memory issues cause a senior to lose their bearings near a staircase or another uneven surface, it could lead to a dangerous fall. Humans of all ages can suffer serious injury from a hard fall, and the risk increases if you are frail. Accidentally stepping on ice, loose gravel, or a drop-off can have dire consequences. This is especially true if an individual is in a confused mental state.

Nutrition and medication also factor into falls. The CDC has noted that Vitamin D deficiencies are associated with falls and increased risk of injury. Many medications have side effects that can contribute to falls. This is something you should discuss with your doctor when considering any new medications.

Fortunately, while there are many causes of falls, there are as many things that seniors can do to decrease their risk. Here are some actions seniors can take to protect themselves from falls.

Preventative Measure #1: Have the Proper Equipment

LifeCall’s product was a breakthrough for its time. However, technology has evolved at an incredible rate in the 30+ years since and the options for medical monitoring have changed accordingly.

Years ago, many seniors disliked wearing devices because of a perceived stigma. These days, medical monitoring can be done through a device worn by people of all ages: the Apple Watch.

Other companies are likely to add Fall Detection features to their devices in years to come, but the Apple Watch has led the way among the top fitness trackers in incorporating this capability. LifeCall’s product only worked in the home, but the Apple Watch offers fall protection anywhere you have cell phone reception. The Apple Watch can also be set to go off for medication reminders. On top of that, it can track fitness markers, do an EKG test, and even read out your grandchildren’s text messages, all while helping with fall safety!

Preventative Measure #2: Nutrition

The CDC notes that Vitamin D deficiency is associated with falls and injury, but while taking Vitamin D supplements is a start, it may not be enough. Like most nutrients, Vitamin D works in conjunction with other nutrients, such as Vitamin K2, which impacts the body’s ability to absorb Vitamin D.

Proper diet is important at any age, but seniors should understand the changing needs of their bodies. This knowledge can help them eat to optimize physical and mental vitality. The right plan will allow seniors to maintain proper levels of nutrients, which will positively impact all aspects of health.

Preventative Measure #3: Balance and Strength Exercises

Like anything else in life, movement is a skill, and it can be deliberately practiced. Many yoga practices will enhance your balance. These classes also offer multiple opportunities to get up and down from the floor, an ability we all want to maintain. Another popular practice is Tai Chi, which some refer to as “walking meditation.”

Tai Chi is a calming practice that is done at a gentle pace. The practice asks you to balance on specific parts of the foot and move in all directions. These movements can decrease your risk of a fall during daily activities.

Maintaining strength is also an effective preventative measure. Seniors who can maintain muscle mass have greater lower body strength, which helps to prevent falls. They also have more upper body strength to catch themselves or protect their head if they do fall. Seniors may not be able to lift what they did in their twenties, but maintaining functional strength decreases the odds of a devastating fall, and allows seniors to continue to pursue the activities that they enjoy.

Preventative Measure #4: Proper Footwear

Thick-soled shoes may come to mind for some when they think of “senior shoes”, but this may be an outdated view. Thick-soled shoes can be useful in some circumstances, but they reduce the amount of information sensed through the feet, which has a negative effect on balance.

Studies have shown that wearing minimalist shoes, which offer a “barefoot” feel, while walking can increase foot strength as much as a foot strengthening program. These shoes give the feet more room to spread out and allow you to feel the ground you are standing on. That increased awareness will naturally improve your sense of balance.

Many companies produce quality minimalist footwear, but we love Xero Shoes, a Colorado-based company that offers minimalist options for everything from sandals to winter boots, including the Aptos, a slip-on shoe that can function as an indoor slipper or an outdoor shoe. You can also find non-slip socks that allow you to go close to barefoot at home if the temperature is it is a bit too chilly for true bare feet!

Preventative Measure #5: Make Your Home a Safe Space

There are two ways to make the home a safe space if you want to age in place: adding safety items and taking away hazards.

Grab bars in the bathroom, double railings on staircases, and non-slip mats in the bathtub and shower are a few of the many additions that can help a senior get around their home safely, but if things such as broken or uneven steps, or rugs that could be tripped over, are not addressed, the rest could be for naught.

Closing Thoughts

Falls are a serious concern, and while injury can result at any age, the increased frailty of age increases the odds that a senior will suffer severe consequences. A fall can have devastating effects, but with the proper knowledge, we can reshape our bodies and our environments to decrease the risk of a life-altering injury.

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Kathy’s mission is to use the Age Better Resources platform to share the knowledge she acquired over many years to help seniors understand how they can optimize their later years. Her hope is that the content on this site, the associated services or products available, and the experts she will share, will help you or your loved ones create a plan to live as many good days and years as possible. If immediate or more personalized support is needed, personal consultations are available.

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