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Achieving Balance and Preventing Falls

By Michael Lasalandra
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent

Falls are the leading cause of injury among older adults. In fact, one out of three people over the age of 65 falls every year, with one-third suffering serious injuries ranging from broken bones to head lacerations.

“Falling is a huge problem,” says Kathy Shillue, a physical therapist and Clinical Director of Outpatient Rehabilitation Services at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “When somebody falls, that can be the beginning of a decline. “People become fearful and limit their activity. They become more and more frail.”

Yet fewer than half of those at risk for falling talk to their doctors about the issue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those at highest risk for falling include the elderly; anyone taking multiple medications, some of which can cause dizziness; those with vision impairment; those with conditions such as neuropathy that can cause numbness in the extremities; those with arthritis; and those with generalized muscle weakness.

Yet there are things people can do to minimize their risk of falling.

“You can start an exercise program designed to prevent falls,” says Shillue.

Such a program typically would include strengthening exercises to work on your back and leg muscles since they are most responsible for balance, she says.

Special balancing exercises that can be found in many exercise classes or tai chi workouts can also help, as can simply going for walks.

“Just walking around the community can help,” she says. “Sometimes this can be challenging, as there are curbs and steps and other obstacles that can make it difficult. So you may want to start indoors, in a hallway, for example, where you feel safe. Then you can work up from there.”

Strengthening exercises such as getting up and down from a chair 10 times in a row or just getting up and down on your toes are helpful, she says.

Generally about 150 minutes of exercise a week is recommended, but anything is better than nothing, she notes.

There are also some common sense tips that can help reduce the risk of falling:

  • Wear sensible shoes, not flip-flops or sandals when walking
  • Don’t read or text while walking
  • Swing your arms while you walk
  • Pick your feet up; don’t shuffle
  • Keep your house clear of clutter and obstacles

“If you are afraid of falling, bring this up at your annual physical with your doctor,” Shillue says. “It may be worthwhile to visit a physical therapist to design an exercise program that is safe yet challenging enough. Sometimes an exercise program can bring your confidence back and get you to increase your activity level, something that a fall typically begins to limit.”

Above content provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted October 2014

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