Risk Factors

Staying Safe As You Age  

Preventing Falls


As you age, your risk for falling increases. According to the CDC, more than one-third of people ages 65 and older and half of those ages 75 and older fall each year. Although most falls cause only minor injuries, the CDC estimates that between 20% and 30% of the people who fall experience moderate to severe injuries (such as bone fractures) that severely limit independence. The risk is even greater for people who have fallen within the past year.

Falls can occur anywhere, but most occur in the home. They can occur while climbing stairs, or getting out of the bathtub, for instance.

Special risks

People who are at higher risk for falls include older women and people with the following conditions: weakness in feet or legs; problems with walking and balance; arthritis, especially in the knee; Parkinson disease; dementia; problems with hearing or vision; dehydration; low blood pressure that causes poor blood flow to the brain; and taking multiple medications. The more risk factors you have, the higher your risk for falls.

Older age increases the risk for falling because your senses dim and your nervous system begins to deteriorate. You can't see as well. The balance mechanism in your ears becomes less accurate. Heart disease, diabetes, and thyroid conditions can affect your sense of balance. Many older adults are less active than they were when younger. This sedentary lifestyle can lead to muscle weakness, which also can lead to falls.

An older person with osteoporosis who falls is more likely to fracture a bone. Even a minor fall can cause a bone to break.

What to do

You can take steps to reduce your risk for falling. Here are some tips to help keep you safe:

  • Get your hearing and vision checked regularly; begin check-ups before you notice problems.
  • Talk with your doctor about your medication therapy to make sure it is not causing you to feel dizzy.
  • Tell your doctor or health care provider if you are experiencing balance problems. Ask if your symptoms require a fall-risk assessment.
  • Let your doctor know if you have fallen in the last year and the circumstances surrounding the incident.
  • Try not to stand up quickly. This can cause you to feel dizzy and possibly fall. Before standing, wiggle your toes and feet, and swing your legs, if possible. Move enough to increase your heart rate and blood pressure, then stand up.
  • If you feel unsteady on your feet, use a cane or walker. Wear shoes with nonslip soles.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise helps strengthen your muscles and improve your agility. Talk with your doctor about what types of exercise might be appropriate for you.
  • Wear safe footwear.
  • Limit your consumption of alcohol.
  • Keep your home free of clutter. Add handrails in your home where needed, such as grab bars in the shower and supports on either side of the toilet. Improve the lighting in dark areas that might cause you to fall. Use a nightlight if you get out of bed at night. Eliminate slippery floors and throw rugs.

For more information, please refer to the CDC's Fall Prevention resources.

Medication Safety

Medicines can be critical for treating and preventing diseases. Yet sometimes medicines cause side effects and actually make a person feel worse. Side effects are more common as people age, so it's important to understand how to identify and prevent side effects.

In older people, it may be difficult to distinguish between side effects and symptoms of disease, especially for those with several different diseases. A person feeling dizzy, for example, may think it is a symptom of his or her heart disease, rather than a side effect from a new medication.

Common side effects from medicines are dizziness, fatigue, dry mouth, constipation and headache, and in older men, difficulty urinating. Because some side effects, such as difficulties with balance or memory are vague, people may attribute them to "just getting older."

More side effects

Side effects are more common in older people because many have several chronic diseases or conditions and, therefore, are often taking several medicines. The more medicines a person is taking, the more likely it is that he or she may experience side effects. There is also a greater chance that medicines can interact with each other.

Changes in the body that occur with age can affect how medicines are removed from the body. When medicine is swallowed, it is absorbed through the wall of the stomach or intestines and goes into the bloodstream. After the blood carries the medicine to the tissues, the medicine is eventually removed from the body by the kidneys and liver.

As people get older, the kidneys and liver do not remove drugs as efficiently. Therefore, drug levels in the bloodstream may become too high and cause side effects. Health care providers can use lower doses of medication to prevent drug levels from becoming too high. Certain diseases can also affect how drugs are handled in the body. For example, high blood pressure and diabetes can damage the kidneys, resulting in slower removal of a drug. And some drugs can reduce the ability of the kidneys or liver to remove drugs.

Other medications

Many older people also take nonprescription medications, including herbal and natural remedies. Although these can be useful for treating mild symptoms, they can also have some negative side effects. Pain medicines, such as ibuprofen, can affect the kidneys and may cause bleeding stomach ulcers. Ginko biloba and ginseng, both herbal remedies, can interfere with the action of warfarin (a medication to treat blood clots) and cause excessive bleeding. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about using over-the-counter medicines or any herbal or natural remedies. Your pharmacist and doctor can keep a record of these drugs and make sure they are not interacting with any other medicines.

Using medicines safely

The FDA offers these tips for older adults:

  • Know the common side effects of all of your medicines.
  • Contact your pharmacist or doctor if you think you are experiencing a side effect. Remember that any new changes in your health may be a drug side effect.
  • Throw out medicines that have expired.
  • Do not share medicines with other people. The dose and the medicine were chosen specifically for you and may not be right for other people.
  • Fill all your prescriptions at the same pharmacy. Your pharmacist can then keep track of the medicines you use and be aware of any possible problems with interactions.
  • Keep a complete list of your medicines, including nonprescription medicines. Share this list with your health care provider. Click here to find out how you can receive a FREE medical safety list from Lakeland.

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