Falling over is something we tend to associate with the very old – yet everyone over 50 is much more likely to have a fall than they think, according to research for Saga Magazine.
A survey of 9,521 people aged 50+ showed that everyone underestimated their risk of falling.
For instance, people aged 50-59 were almost twice as likely to fall as they thought – only 7% of those questioned said they thought they were at risk of taking a tumble – yet 13% in this age group did.
This gap between expectation and reality is a worry as falls – many of which are avoidable – cost the NHS an eye-watering £2.3 billion a year – that’s £6.3 million a day. An astounding 30% of us over 65 will fall during the next year.
Money aside, falling is a real drain on confidence and independence.
But a few modest changes to our homes, lifestyle and medication could prevent many of these perfectly avoidable accidents. That’s why Saga has published a 32-page guide to preventing falls, in association with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) and Public Health England (PHE).
Click here to download a copy of Saga's Guide to Staying Steady (PDF).
So why do we become more vulnerable to stumbles and tumbles as we get older? There are hundreds of reasons, and these can be intrinsic things related to you or someone you care for, extrinsic factors in your/their environment, or they can be linked to lifestyle.
Intrinsic factors include a previous fall, health problems such as Parkinson’s or stroke, memory problems or poor eyesight. Extrinsic factors are things such as stairs, steps, rugs, low furniture, pets, an untidy living space or one that doesn’t take into account your needs.
Lifestyle factors can include a poor diet, meaning you don’t get the nutrients you need to stay strong, not drinking enough, or doing things that are more risky for you now you’re older such as climbing on chairs, tables or garage roofs to do jobs.
Audit home and garden
Falls are multifactorial and loss of muscle strength (sarcopenia), dizziness, problems with balance and a host of other factors can all play a part. Medications can cause slowness and confusion, and alcohol can also slow reactions and make you unsteady on your feet.
If you or someone you care for is at risk, it’s worth going around your or your loved one’s home and garden, checking on hazards such as poor lighting, loose rugs, mats or wires.
Use the services of an occupational therapist
Familiarity can make it easy to miss potential hazards, so getting an outside opinion can help. Some areas have a specialist Falls Service, a multi-disciplinary team that can assess the risk of falling and advise on steps to minimise this. This may include a home visit from an occupational therapist and/or physiotherapist who can check you and your home and advise on aids, such as special chairs, rails, stairlift or mobility aids such as walkers. You can access your local service via your GP.
Here are some ways to reduce your risk of falling:
Healthy diet and exercise
It’s important to stay strong and active. A physiotherapist can give you exercises tailored to your needs. It’s also important to eat well and stay hydrated. A healthy diet is essential for strength. It’s also vital to drink plenty of fluids – as we get older, we can’t rely on thirst to tell us that we’re getting dehydrated.
Between 50 and 70, we lose 30% of muscle strength, but this can be balanced by regular physical activity; 30 minutes five times a week is the recommendation.
Gardening, housework, cycling and walking all count. Yoga and t’ai chi are particularly good for balance: one study showed t’ai chi classes cut falls in the over 65s by 26%.
Safety tips for the home
Check that the most-used routes around your home – paths, corridors and stairs – are clear and well-lit, and items you need daily are easily accessible. Avoid taking risks. Ask a friend, relative or neighbour to change a light bulb or do DIY jobs. And think about your clothing, too. Choose well-fitting non-slip shoes and avoid backless slippers, high heels, trailing scarves or over-long garments.
Have a health screening
Have regular hearing and eyesight checks, and make sure your prescription for glasses and/or hearing aid is up to date. Ask your GP or pharmacist to check your medications, especially if you take more than four – some combinations affect balance, blood pressure and dizziness. Visits to a podiatrist can help you stay steady on your feet, while fear and lack of confidence can affect the risk of falling, so a mood assessment might be needed. If you worry about your memory, ask your GP about cognitive screening and/or assessment. Get your bones checked. Strong bones are vital to reduce the impact of a fall and the likelihood of another.
Improve your lighting
Sixty-year-old eyes need three times more light than 20-year-old eyes. Consider swapping bulbs for brighter ones: LED or halogen bulbs are better than energy-saving ones, although not as efficient.
A table light two feet away from where you’re sitting will provide 25 times more light than a ceiling bulb.
Strengthen your bones
Calcium is crucial, but magnesium and vitamin D are just as important. Eat milk, cheese, yoghurt, leafy green veg, pulses and beans, dried fruit and oily fish.
The main source of vitamin D is the sun between April and October. The Government recommends a vitamin D supplement (10 micrograms) for all over 65s.
Ask your GP for a medication review
Some 36% of people over 75 are on four or more drugs, and some – such as high blood pressure and heart medicines – are associated with dizziness.
Don’t keep it to yourself. If you or someone you know has a fall, tell the GP.
Saga has published a 32-page guide to preventing falls, in association with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) and Public Health England (PHE).
Need to talk to a GP from the comfort of your own home? Saga Health Insurance customers can talk to a qualified, practising UK GP 24 hours a day by phone. Find out more about our GP service.