PhotoThe physical ravages of aging are well-known. The older you get it seems the more vulnerable you are to heart disease, cancer and other infirmities. But one of the biggest threats doesn't get a lot of attention – simply falling down.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) keeps track of falls by seniors and estimates that one out of three adults age 65 or over has fallen at least once in the last 12 months. When you are young falling happens a lot, but in most cases little or no harm is done. Youthful bodies are pretty resilient.

But it's a problem for those who are advancing in age, especially if they have not remained physically active. The result of a fall can be a shattered hip, a broken arm or a concussion. In one year the CDC says 95% of broken hips were found to be the result of falls.

Treatment and recovery

Not only does the injury require treatment but the recovery can be slow and painful, often leading to other health problems. According to the CDC there were 2.3 million fall-related injuries to older adults in 2010. Nearly a quarter had to be admitted to a hospital.

As you might expect, treating these injuries can get expensive. The CDC says direct medical costs for falls in 2010, adjusted for inflation, was about $30 billion.

Preventive steps

There are things older adults can do to make a fall less likely. The first is to get plenty of exercise. Staying active will help maintain balance and agility. The CDC also recommends exercises that improve leg strength.

Perhaps you medication is making you more vulnerable. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review your prescriptions for combinations that may cause dizziness or drowsiness.

Older people often find they don't see as well as they once did. An annual eye exam and update to eyeglasses can maximize vision. Consider getting a pair with single-vision distance lenses for some activities such as walking outside.

Homes can also be made more senior-friendly by reducing tripping hazards and adding grab bars inside and outside the tub or shower and next to the toilet, adding railings on both sides of stairways, and improving the lighting. A state program in Pennsylvania to do just that has yielded some positive results.

17% reduction in falls

A study, funded by CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that this low-cost approach reduced falls by seniors by 17% throughout the state.

"There is a high prevalence of falls among people 65 and older that increases with age, as does the inability to get up after a fall," said lead author Steven Albert, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at Pitt Public Health. "A challenge for public health officials is to decrease the risk of falls without encouraging reduced physical activity. Our research shows that the Healthy Steps for Older Adults program is a successful tool to help reduce falls."

Prevention efforts

The program is run by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging and offers risk screening for falls and educational information regarding fall prevention, for adults 50 years and older. It identifies seniors who are at high risk for falls are refers them to primary care providers. They are then encouraged to complete home safety assessments, which identify modification — including banisters and grab bars — to reduce hazards in their homes that might put them at greater risk for falls.

"Though further analyses will be necessary to understand specifically how these actions translated into a 17% reduction in falls, it appears that referrals for physician care and home safety assessments, along with informing older adults of their high-risk status and heightening their sensitivity to situations involving a risk of falling, may lead to reductions in falls," Albert said.

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