Falls: Not an Inevitable Consequence of Aging

Do you know someone who has fallen? Or have you had a fall yourself? If so, this should come as no surprise. Falls occur commonly and are the leading cause of unintentional injury among people aged 65+. In fact, every year one in three adults aged 65 or older will suffer a fall. About one in five falls causes a moderate to severe injury—for example, a broken arm, leg, neck, or hip, and serious head injuries.

In addition to directing the Harborview Fall Prevention Clinic, Dr. Elizabeth Phelan serves on the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services.

"Fall injuries can be very disabling," says UW Medicine physician Dr. Elizabeth Phelan, a geriatrician and director of the Harborview Fall Prevention Clinic, "but even if someone is not injured, they may fear they will fall again, and begin to restrict their activities, which only makes them weaker and actually increases their risk of falling."

"Everyone should talk with their health care provider about what they can do to reduce their risk of falling," says Phelan. "Often people are reluctant to admit that they have concerns about falling, or have fallen, out of concern that their provider might tell them they can no longer remain in their own home. But, today, our focus is to do everything we can to keep our patients active and independent—and a key part of that effort is to reduce their risk of falling and injuring."

Falls are not accidents that nothing can be done about, and falls are not an inevitable consequence of aging. Quite the contrary: falls are often preventable.

Balance is key

"Your provider can do a quick assessment of your balance and strength, identify medications in your regimen that might make you lightheaded or dizzy, and identify other factors that might increase your risk of falling, such as vision problems or hazards in your home."

"Then your provider can help draw up an exercise program that matches your needs. The single most important thing you can do to prevent yourself from falling is work on improving your balance. If you're unsteady, it's best to first see a physical therapist who can assess what you need to work on and provide one-on-one supervision to get you started."

"If you're very unsteady, for example, a good place to start might be standing on one leg while holding onto something sturdy, like a chair or a kitchen counter, for support. As you improve, you can attempt more challenging exercises. Eventually, you might try walking side to side, backwards, or heel-to-toe. Balance exercises that have been adapted from tai chi have been shown to help a great deal."

Take steps now to reduce risk

"People who have good balance and are at low risk of falling can further reduce their risk by participating in an exercise program that emphasizes balance training, take a tai chi or yoga class, or even take a class in dance. Ballroom dancing requires you to move forward, backward and side to side while navigating around the floor, and it's fun to learn and to do."

"Most people don't think they are at risk of falling until they fall. But as we age, the risk of falling is real. So it is important for all of us to take steps now to reduce our risk and help keep ourselves as active and independent as possible."

Contributor Michael McCarthy, MD, a medical writer and editor, is principal at Seattle Health Communications. This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of UW Medicine Health.

Focus on Falls

Falls Prevention in Community Dwelling Older Adults

Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 2:00–4:00 p.m.
UW Tower Auditorium
4333 Brooklyn Avenue NE, Seattle

Join the UW Alumni Association and the UW School of Nursing for the 2014 De Tornyay Center Healthy Aging Spring Lecture, featuring Elizabeth Phelan, MD, MS. Click here to read Dr. Phelan's bio. This lecture is free and open to the public.

For more information about local falls prevention efforts, visit: