Falls Are Increasingly Lethal for Older Americans
Deaths from falls are increasing sharply among elderly Americans, a new study finds.
Nearly 25,000 people 75 and older died as a result of falls in 2016 -- almost three times as many as in 2000. And experts warn that the toll is likely to rise along with population shifts.
"As the United States population continues to age, we can expect more deaths from falls," said researcher Robin Lee, an epidemiologist at the Injury Center of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We can also expect more hospitalizations and nursing home admissions as a result of falls."
An estimated $50 billion was spent on medical care related to falls in 2015, Lee said.
For both men and women, the death rate due to falls per 100,000 people roughly doubled between 2000 and 2016, according to the study.
For men, the rate rose from about 61 per 100,000 to 116. Among women, the death rate jumped from 46 to 106 per 100,000.
Not surprisingly, the danger rose as people got older, Lee's team confirmed.
In 2016, for example, the death rate due to falls among 75- to 79-year-olds was 42 per 100,000. Among those 95 and older, the rate was 591 per 100,000.
Exactly why these rates are rising isn't really clear, researchers said. What is clear, they emphasized, is that falls don't have to happen in the first place.
"Caregivers should know that falls are preventable, and they can encourage their loved ones to speak to their doctor about their fall risk," Lee said.
The report was published June 4 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Another study in the same issue tested a home-based exercise program aimed at helping seniors prevent falls.
That study was led by Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her team found that the program -- in which a physical therapist visits the home and provides strength and balance retraining exercises -- reduced falls over 12 months by 36%.
"By reducing the rate of falls, we may be prolonging the ability of these older adults to be independent living and functional," Liu-Ambrose said.
Dr. Marco Pahor, director of the Institute of Aging at the University of Florida in Gainesville, wrote an editorial accompanying the studies. While he attributed the increasing rate of fatal falls to the nation's advancing age, he emphasized that age is only one factor that increases seniors' fall risk.
Other factors include a sedentary lifestyle, chronic diseases, neurologic issues and incontinence, as well as higher use of prescription drugs. All can cause problems with gait and balance that can result in potentially catastrophic and life-threatening falls, Pahor pointed out.
"People can die after a fall for many reasons, which may include head trauma, internal bleeding and complications of a bone fracture," he said. "Fractures can lead to hospitalization, immobility in bed and respiratory or other infections, which can be fatal."
Several steps can be taken to reduce the risk, Pahor said. These include weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, balance training and resistance exercises to strengthen muscles. Preventing and treating osteoporosis is also important.
He said caregivers should review medications that can cause low blood pressure or loss of balance, get seniors' vision problems corrected, make sure they wear safe footwear and take steps to make their homes safer.
Home visits by a physical therapist may be the most practical approach for people who have mobility or transportation problems, Pahor added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers more about falls among older adults.
SOURCES: Robin Lee, Ph.D., M.P.H., epidemiologist, Injury Center, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Teresa Liu-Ambrose, P.T., Ph.D., director, Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada; Marco Pahor, M.D., director, Institute on Aging, and professor and founding chair, Department of Aging and Geriatric Research, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville; Journal of the American Medical Association, June 4, 2019