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Take Precautions to Prevent Fainting and Falls

Syncope, or fainting, is a significant cause of falls among the elderly and has been a major focus of study by researchers in the Institute for Aging Research (IFAR) at Hebrew SeniorLife. Under the leadership of Dr. Lewis A. Lipsitz, co-director of IFAR, ongoing studies of the causes of syncope in seemingly healthy older individuals has produced findings that help explain why this is such a problem.

In older adults, common daily activities can result in dangerous reductions in blood pressure (hypotension). With age, a person's ability to compensate for these activities becomes compromised. This drop in blood pressure reduces blood flow to the brain, often resulting in loss of consciousness and a consequent fall.

Dehydration, another cause of hypotension, is also a problem among healthy elders. Older people do not experience thirst as readily as younger individuals do. They often will not adequately replace fluid that they may lose due to acute illness or ingesting certain medications. Again, the resulting hypotension can precipitate fainting and falling.

As one can see, even a healthy older adult is subject to falling, but many individuals also suffer from chronic illnesses that cause dizziness, fainting or impaired movement. In some cases several conditions may be operating at once to put a person at even greater risk. Additionally, medications prescribed to treat a condition may be the culprit. All of these factors point to the need for careful monitoring of an aging person's health and effective communication and coordination between physicians, patients and any other caregivers.

As researchers at Hebrew SeniorLife are able to identify more precisely the mechanisms that trigger fainting and falling, seniors and their caregivers will be able to better predict circumstances that may lead to a fall and develop more effective prevention strategies. However, based on current knowledge, there are precautions one can take now to reduce the likelihood of falling. Experts at HSL offer the following advice:

  • If you are taking medications that lower blood pressure, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can take them between meals to avoid a large drop in blood pressure. If you become dizzy after large meals, small frequent feedings, a glass of water with the meal, or walking after meals may help.
  • Take prescribed medications as ordered; do not take extra pills to make up for missed doses. Be careful of medications which can make you drowsy. Do not take any "over-the counter-medications" before talking to your doctor. Remember that these medications may interact with medicines you are presently taking.
  • Wear shoes that fit well and have low heels, and don't walk around in socks or stockings that could make you slip.
  • Have your eyes and ears examined annually.
  • Ask your doctor about exercises that will improve your strength and endurance. In addition to walking, consider weight-lifting exercise. Research at the Center shows that this resistance training builds muscle size and strength, and improves gait and mobility.
  • Use a cane or walker if it has been prescribed, and make sure the cane or walker is adjusted to your height. Learn to use it properly.
  • Take safety precautions: keep your home well-lit, remove scatter rugs, remove or tape down telephone and electrical cords; install grab bars in the shower/tub and next to the toilet and use a non-skid bath mat in the shower.
  • If you have a fall, even if you do not hurt yourself, report it to your doctor. If you fall and have trouble getting up, or you think you lost consciousness, call your doctor immediately.

As more people live longer lives than ever before, the need to find ways for seniors to live productive and safe lives in community settings will continue to grow. It is clear to see that falls constitute a major threat to maintaining independent lives for older people. However, the solution to the problem is not simple.

Prevention requires an understanding of many gerontological issues, and IFAR findings will continue to shape strategies aimed at helping people maintain a good quality of life as they grow old.

Above content provided by Hebrew SeniorLife in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted July 2012

Contact Information

Division of Gerontology
Department of Medicine
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Lowry Medical Office Building #1B (West Campus)
110 Francis Street
Boston, MA 02215
617-632-8696

Contact Information

Hebrew Senior Life
1200 Centre Street
Boston, MA 02131
617-363-8000