A Dangerous Road: Elderly and Winter Falls

Know the signs of increased risk

Icy sidewalks. Slippery driveways. Boots that bring melting snow onto floors. These all can cause falls. These are minor hazards for most of us, but for an elderly person, they can be devastating. A spill that gives a 20-year-old a bruised knee could send an elderly person to the hospital.

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“If you are over the age of 80 and you fall and break your hip, there is only a 50 percent chance that you will be able to return home, ever,” says Frederick Frost, MD, Department Chair of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic.

Some adults over age 65 are more at risk for falls than others, says Barbara Messinger-Rapport, MD, PhD, Director of Geriatric Medicine at Cleveland Clinic.

Danger signs to look for

Here are 4 danger signs according to Drs. Frost and Messinger-Rapport:

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  • Rapid weight loss could mean loss of muscle and bone mass. Elderly people who lose 10 percent of their weight or more within six months may be more at risk because older people are more likely to lose muscle and bone mass than fat, says Dr. Messinger-Rapport. “Women are more likely to have a wrist fracture if they try to break their fall with their arms,” she says. “And if they don’t get their arms out in time, they’re more likely to break their hips when they fall.”
  • Vision problems can make it hard to see. If an elderly person has impaired vision, this can cause them to trip and fall and bump into things. Some eye problems, like cataracts, can be corrected.
  • Neurodegenerative diseases can increase an older person’s risk. Neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease and dementia increase an older person’s risk. “Many people with early dementia may look very robust, but have difficulty with multitasking,” says Dr. Messinger-Rapport. “They may be carrying a cup from the living room to the kitchen, and if there is an obstacle or an uneven surface, they may not pay sufficient attention, trip, and fall.”
  • Certain medications impair judgment. Pain medications, muscle relaxants, or sedatives can impair an older adult’s judgment, says Dr. Messinger-Rapport. “And even though you wouldn’t think it, most antidepressants increase the risk of falls and fractures.”

How do you prevent falls?

Drs. Frost and Messinger-Rapport offer these suggestions for fall-proofing a home — whether elderly loved ones are visiting or you are helping an elderly person reduce risk of falls in their own home.

Clear a walking path

Make sure any pavement is shoveled and de-iced. Try to discourage people from tramping through the house in wet boots, and wipe up any slippery spots quickly. You might also encourage shoes (or slipper socks) in the house because they have more traction than bare feet.

Remove obstacles

Either remove throw rugs or use double-sided tape to secure them; they can cause people to slip. De-clutter the stairs. To help elderly visitors, make sure the steps are free of any obstructions like shoes or toys. Look for unnecessary items or even pets and small children plopped down in a high-traffic area.

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Watch alcohol intake

At family get-togethers, older people may want to change their alcohol intake, says Dr. Frost. “However, the interactions of that with drugs they may be taking can be unpredictable,” she says. The limit on alcohol for older adults is one standard serving in a 24-hour period.

Both doctors say if an elderly person has fallen in the past year, he or she may have a balance problem and should tell a doctor. Treatment can include physical therapy sessions to improve confidence as well as strength, endurance, and balance.

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