When you are a child you might hit the ground several times a day and bounce right back up. When you are past 65, it's a different story.
For older adults, a fall can be a life-threatening situation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the death rates from falls among older men and women have risen sharply over the past decade.
In 2011, about 22,900 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries. Men are more likely than women to die from a fall. After taking age into account, the fall death rate in 2011 was 41% higher for men than for women.
In 2013, 2.5 million nonfatal falls among older adults were treated in emergency departments and more than 734,000 of these patients were hospitalized.
“I've fallen and I can't get up!”
While young people never think about falling or its consequences, it's often all older people think about. The long-running commercial promoting an emergency monitoring service with the catch line, “I've fallen and I can't get up” has entered the popular culture, in part because it hits home for a large segment of the population.
Why do so many elderly people fall? Geriatric health experts say several factors contribute to the problem.
Many people stop getting exercise when they get older, leading to poor muscle tone, decreased bone mass, loss of balance and reduced flexibility.
Sometimes they simply don't see as well as they once did and trip over things. They may be taking medications with side effects that make them more prone to losing their balance.
Whatever the cause, the CDC says falling is a largely preventable health issue. Regular exercise may be the most important counter measure. The agency says Tai Chi programs may be especially helpful.
Simple game of catch
So might a simple game of catch. Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) conclude that having the elderly engage in simple exercises involving catching a weighted medicine ball can improve their balance and might reduce falls.
Alexander Aruin, professor of physical therapy at UIC, says the brain plays a huge role in keeping us vertical. When someone is jostled by a bump or a stumble, for example, he says the brain uses two strategies to maintain balance and prevent a fall.
"When the perturbation is predictable, for example, if when walking down the street you see someone about to bump into you, you brace yourself," Aruin said. The brain activates muscles in anticipation of the jolt.
The second strategy is corrective – the brain engages muscles after the bump to prevent us from losing our balance, he said, which might involve taking an extra step, or changing body position. When we're young, our brains have no problem doing that.
Losing balance control
As we age, we lose that control, the ability to ready ourselves to maintain balance. As a result, our muscles don't react. Our resources for maintaining balance become more limited and we become less stable and more prone to falls.
Aruin and the other researchers found the exercise of playing catch with the medicine ball improved electrical activity of leg and trunk muscles. In older adults, the researchers found that not only can they improve those muscle functions, but they also improve at performing a task that was not part of the training.
While exercise is key to remaining upright, the researchers say a particular kind of exercise just might prove to be more effective.