Understanding Your Fall Risk

An aide helps a woman navigate a hallway with the help of a walker.

Walkers and other assistive devices can actually put you in danger of falling if used incorrectly.

Being seriously injured as a result of a fall is a common concern for many older adults. But if fear of falling causes you to limit your activity, it can not only impact your quality of life, it may actually increase your fall risk.

The best way to improve balance, strength and endurance is by continuing to walk and stay active. Put simply, mobility is “use it or lose it.” By understanding the most common reasons behind falls, you can feel safer and more confident about staying on your feet.

Internal Factors: Health-Based Fall Risks

Balance Challenges

A recent study found that 41% of falls occurred not because of a slip or trip, but because the person shifted their body weight incorrectly. The natural process of aging affects the many systems in our body that work together to keep us balanced, including:

  • Joint Flexibility – As our hips and ankles become less flexible, we can’t as easily make the small movements that keep us standing upright.
  • Muscle Loss – Around age 30, our bodies start losing muscle strength. This can cause weakness and loss of stamina.

What can be done?  Regular light exercise, like walking or stretching, can help keep stabilizing muscles and joints strong. Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist for expert advice

Chronic Illness

Seniors living with a chronic condition face an increased risk of falling. About a third of falls are related to direct and indirect effects of chronic diseases, especially conditions such as:

  • Cognitive impairment, including Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • COPD
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Eye disease

What can be done?  If you have a chronic illness, talk with your doctor about how your condition affects your fall risk. Keep a record of all falls, even minor ones and near-misses, and share this information with your doctors. You can also request that your doctor perform a balance screening. This will involve an assessment of your lower limb strength, an analysis of your gait (how you walk), and a questionnaire about your fall history.

Medication Side Effects

Different classes of medications can affect your fall risk in different ways, including:

  • Medications that affect the brain,
  • Medications that affect blood pressure, and
  • Medications that lower blood sugar.

What can be done?  Review this list to see if any of the medications you are taking may impact your balance. Be proactive in addressing your concerns with your doctor. Some busy doctors may not realize that the medications prescribed to address one problem may be making another problem worse.

External Factors: Environmental Fall Risks

Indoor and Outdoor Hazards

Loose throw rugs, icy sidewalks, and cracked or uneven sidewalks are all potential tripping hazards. Use this checklist to evaluate your home and eliminate as many risks as possible.

Risky Footwear

Time to clean out your closet and see if the shoes you wear are putting you at risk. High heels, floppy slippers or sandals, and shoes with slick soles can make you stumble. Shoes with Velcro straps can be easily tightened, and also eliminate the risk of tripping over an untied shoelace. If you’re choosing slip-on shoes, make sure they fit snugly and do not slip off while you’re walking. Walking in stocking feet can be dangerous – slippery floors plus slick socks can equal a fall.

Using Assistive Devices Incorrectly

Actors often get this wrong on television! Using your cane, walker, or other assistive device improperly can throw off your center of balance, especially when transferring from sitting to standing, or vice versa. Review these tips for walkers and canes.

 

Not all of these fall risk factors affect every person, and not all of them can be modified. Start with the ones that are easiest to change and take practical steps to improve your fall safety.