In the senior community where my mom lives, death is a frequent visitor. When we talk about a recent loss, the story is often the same: her neighbor fell, and things got worse from there. Falls are the seventh-leading cause of death for adults aged 65 and older in the U.S., and their prevalence has jumped more than 30 percent in recent years, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even when a spill doesn't cause serious injuries, it can be the beginning of the end for elderly adults, explains Patricia Dykes, who studies fall prevention at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. “They become afraid to move. They'll think, ‘Maybe I shouldn't walk so much.’ Then they get weaker, and their balance gets poorer.” This starts a spiral of more falls, increased injuries and worsening health. “Fear of falling prevents older people from doing the things that would prevent falls,” she says.
There are likely many reasons for the rise in fall-related deaths. For one thing, more people are surviving heart disease, cancer and strokes and living into their 80s and 90s with impairments and chronic conditions that make them unsteady, says epidemiologist Elizabeth Burns of the CDC, who co-authored the 2018 report. “We also know that Americans use more medications than they used to,” she says. Polypharmacy—taking four or more medications—increases the chance of falling. So does taking a drug that impacts the central nervous system, such as an opioid or antidepressant. Age-related changes in eyesight, cognition, muscle strength and balance also raise risk.
But experts insist that falling is not inevitable. Targeted exercises, modified drug regimens and fixing vision problems can reduce the risk. New technology may help, including smartphone apps that analyze gait, as well as AI tools that alert busy health-care providers to fall risks among their patients.
Probably the single most important thing an individual can do is to work on lower body strength, balance and gait...