If you have a loved one in your family who is at risk of falling, you’ve probably given them all the usual advice concerning fall prevention. Unfortunately, a recent medical report reveals that the message isn’t getting through: a growing number of seniors are dying as a result of falling, and it seems that doctors, nurses, and other health care providers may not be doing enough to reverse the trend.
The Risk of Falling: Traditional Advice Isn’t Reducing the Danger
Just a few weeks ago we discovered this column on the Kaiser Health News website, written by frequent contributor Judith Graham. The title grabbed our attention: “More Seniors Are Dying In Falls,” it said. “Doctors Could Do More To Reduce The Risk.” According to Graham, the usual advice we give seniors about fall prevention just isn’t doing the trick. “Older adults worried about falling typically receive general advice: Take an exercise class. Get your vision checked. Stop taking medications for sleep. Install grab bars in the bathroom.” However, she adds, “A new study suggests that sort of advice hasn’t proved to be very effective: Nearly three times more adults age 75 and older died from falls in 2016 than in 2000, according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.”
The statistics are truly alarming. The Kaiser article reports that more than 25,000 adults 75 and older died as a result of falls in 2016, compared with just over 8,600 in 2000. Population growth among seniors may be a factor, but only a relatively small one, according to the same AMA study: fewer than 52 seniors per 100,000 population suffered a fatal fall back in 2000, but by 2016 that figure had skyrocketed to more than 122 per 100,000. It’s impossible to determine any single reason for this frightening increase, but experts have some theories. “Older adults are probably more vulnerable because they’re living longer with conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease and taking more brain-altering medications such as opioids,” the Kaiser article suggests. Some also speculate that today’s seniors are trying to stay active longer, thus potentially increasing the risk of falling.
The Risk of Falling Will Affect 49 Million Seniors by 2030
Still, whatever the cause, the trend line is ominous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has projected that, by 2030, 49 million older adults will suffer from falls each year. At least one-quarter, or about 12 million people, will face injuries that will trigger more than $100 billion in health-related spending.
The AMA study states that one key to reducing the danger of falls among vulnerable seniors involves health care providers. As Graham writes, “What’s needed to check this alarming trend, experts suggest, is a more personalized approach to preventing falls, more involvement by medical practitioners and better ways to motivate older adults to take action. Since 2012, the CDC has tried to turn the situation around by encouraging physicians to adopt evidence-based fall prevention practices. But doctors still are not doing enough to help older patients.” Research has shown that fewer than half of high-risk seniors (described as people who had fallen repeatedly or sought medical attention for falls) had ever received a comprehensive fall risk assessment, a diagnostic tool that is recommended by both the CDC and the American Geriatrics Society. This assessment evaluates gait, lower-body strength, balance, medication use, and foot problems. Doctors are supposed to test the person’s blood pressure when they rise from a sitting position. They also test vision, measure vitamin D levels, and evaluate the home environment. It’s a good assessment tool, Graham suggests, but half of those at high risk of falling apparently never receive it.
The Risk of Falling Can Be Reduced with the Right Medical Advice
Another study reported by Kaiser Health News found that even relatively routine evaluative tools that might prevent deadly falls were being routinely overlooked by physicians and nurse practitioners. In 40 percent of cases, health care providers failed to ask about medications that might inhibit balance. In almost half of all cases, when advising patients about avoiding falls, doctors failed to recommend exercise, and in more than 60 percent of cases they failed to refer patients to a vision specialist, even though declining strength and deteriorating vision are closely linked to dangerous falls. The AMA study stresses the importance of proper engagement by health care professionals because seniors often pay more attention to their doctors than to their adult children or even their spouses.
“Doctors should ask older adults three questions about falls,” Graham writes: “Have you fallen in the past year? Do you feel unsteady when walking or standing? And are you afraid of falling? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you’re probably a good candidate for a comprehensive fall risk evaluation.” Once a senior has had a risk assessment, the next step is a personalized plan designed to predict and control risk factors that can lead to a dangerous or even deadly fall. (The CDC offers a brochure called “Stay Independent,” designed to alert seniors and their families to risk factors that increase the danger of falling. You’ll find it here on the CDC website.)
The Risk of Retiring Unprepared Also Requires the Right Advice
If you’re a senior or have a senior loved one in your family the Kaiser Health News article is a must-read. But just as it takes the right advice to help prevent a dangerous fall, it also takes the right advice to help prevent the pitfalls of a poorly planned retirement. People often think they have a good enough plan in place when, in reality, all they have done is to prepare a basic financial plan or bought a good medical insurance policy. There’s far more to retirement planning than that! At AgingOptions we take the approach – proven over nearly two decades of working with clients in the real world – that all the essential elements of retirement living have to be integrated into your plan for your future. Those puzzle-pieces include financial planning, legal protection, medical coverage, housing preferences and family communication.
The great news is that we offer a retirement plan called a LifePlan that weaves all these strands together. If you’re looking for true retirement peace of mind, we predict you’ll find it in an AgingOptions LifePlan. Why not take a first step and join Rajiv Nagaich at an upcoming LifePlanning Seminar? These free, information-packed events are offered at locations throughout the Puget Sound region. Visit our Live Events page to see all the upcoming seminar dates and locations and to register for the event of your choice. Don’t head into retirement unprepared! We’ll look forward to meeting you soon at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar. Age on!
(originally reported at www.khn.org)