We all have experienced a fall before, whether it is from tripping over our own two feet or getting our foot caught on something; however our risk of falling increases as we age. About one third of people aged 65 and older and almost half of people over the age of 80 will fall at least once this year.
There are many reasons as to why we fall as we age. They are complicated and include many factors such as age, leg muscle weakness, difficulty with balance or walking, vision problems, medical conditions that limit your ability to get around (i.e. Parkinson’s, stroke, diabetes, etc.), Alzheimer’s or dementia, depression, medications, using a cane or walker, home hazards, and low blood pressure. The list is long and the more risk factors you have, the greater your risk of falling.
Fortunately, physical therapy can help decrease your fall risk in several different ways. A physical therapist will set up a balance program consisting of exercises that will challenge and improve your balance. The balance program will most likely be in conjunction with a strength training program to address any weaknesses contributing to falling.
Gait speed, or walking speed, is an indication of overall health. People who walk very slowly or are unsteady are at a higher risk of falling. People who have experienced a fall tend to decrease their step length and even shuffle when walking. This often leads to needing a cane or walker because they become more unsteady. A physical therapist can help improve your walking ability and gait speed.
During daily activities it is often required that we multi-task, such as walking and talking at the same time. Physical therapists can set up a dual-task training program to improve walking speed while engaged in another activity. This is important for engaging in conversations daily and doing such things as grocery shopping.
Aerobic activity can improve your health in almost every aspect. Aerobic activity is done at low intensity and for a long duration. Walking is one of the safest and most beneficial forms of exercise and aerobic activity despite the problem you may have. Depending on your physical capabilities, working up to 30 minutes of aerobic activity is ideal.
After someone experiences a fall, they develop a fear of falling again. A balance program not only reduces your fall risk but also will help regain your confidence. The fear of falling actually puts you at risk to fall again and needs to be addressed.
People who fear falling again tend to sit more and are scared to move around. Sitting or lying around more also increases the risk of falling as the body adjusts to those positions and has more difficulties recalibrating when upright. The body becomes stiffer and joints tend to hurt more when moving leading to a downhill spiral of moving less and increasing complications.
It is important to address balance as early as possible. A fall can result in a hip fracture leading to more issues. There are approximately 1.6 million hip fractures that occur worldwide. Nearly 75% of all hip fractures occur in women. Within the first year after a hip fracture 20-24% of cases result in death with a greater risk of dying persisting for up to five years after the fracture. Less than half of people who survive a hip fracture resume their prior level of function.
Johnson County Hospital’s physical therapy department offers free screenings to the public. If you are questioning your balance or any other factors, stop in and we can help you.