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Exercise, Training Keep Seniors from Taking a Tumble

Using a cane or walker isn't second-nature to many older people, who can benefit from some training to use them correctly to prevent falls. Credit: ALivmann/morguefile.com
Using a cane or walker isn't second-nature to many older people, who can benefit from some training to use them correctly to prevent falls. Credit: ALivmann/morguefile.com
September 9, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY – September is Falls Prevention Awareness Month, calling attention to the frequency and seriousness of falls among older people, and ways to prevent them.

It's estimated that one in three people over age 65 takes a major, unexpected tumble at least once a year, and it should signal that a closer look at their fall risk may be in order. A fall risk evaluation includes a person's gait and balance, health conditions, medications and home environment.

Dr. Sascha Dublin, an internal medicine physician and investigator, Group Health Research Institute, says it can be a challenge getting an older relative or friend to agree to this checkup, but it's important to try.

"One of the things I find my patients are particularly responsive to is, there may be things they really don't want to work on," she says. "But when I talk about how important is it to you to stay in your own home and stay independent, they're often really highly motivated to do things that will let them stay independent as long as possible."

Dublin says people who use balance aids such as canes or walkers often need a little training to use them correctly, and may be using a hand-me-down piece of equipment that isn't the right size or height and can put them at greater risk of a fall.

Among seniors who take a major fall, Dublin says two-thirds will fall again within six months.

She recommends preventive steps including exercise as people age - not just any exercise, but those that can improve strength, balance and coordination. Tai chi is at the top of Dublin's list, but there are others.

"Many people don't realize how much improvement they may be able to get with becoming more physically active," she says. "For instance, there have been randomized trials that took 90-year-olds to do very gentle weight-lifting in the gym, and found substantial benefits from just small amounts of gentle weight-lifting to strengthen leg muscles."

Dublin adds it's important to tell a doctor or physical therapist about a person's over-the-counter medication use, not only prescriptions. She says cold medications and sleep aids often contain antihistamines, which can make the user drowsy or dizzy.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - UT