As Mainers, we appreciate the beauty of all four seasons in our state. There is nothing more spectacular, however, than fall in Maine with our fresh, crisp autumn air, harvest festivals, and foliage so brilliant that it attracts countless out-of-state visitors to take in the beauty that we see in our own backyards.
The beginning of the fall season also marks “National Falls Prevention Awareness.” Along with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), I have cosponsored a bipartisan resolution that designated the first day of autumn as “National Falls Prevention Awareness Day.” This is the fourth year in a row that I have cosponsored this resolution. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) has designated this year’s falls prevention theme as “Strong Today, Falls Free Tomorrow” to help promote awareness and educate seniors and their families about ways to prevent falls.
The reality is that falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults. One of three older Americans will fall and become injured each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the death rate from falls among older adults has risen sharply over the past decade.
In 2012, more than 2.4 million older adults were treated in emergency departments for falls, and nearly 22,000 will die annually from injuries related to falls. Another alarming fact is that, according to the CDC, individuals over age 65 have the highest rates of death and hospitalizations due to traumatic brain injury (TBI). Falling is the leading cause of these head injuries.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging, of which I serve as Ranking Member, recently held a hearing to examine the link between traumatic brain injuries and neurological diseases. Some research is showing strong evidence that there is a link between moderate and severe TBI and a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as ALS and Parkinson’s Disease. One troubling study cited by the Alzheimer’s Association found that older individuals with a history of moderate traumatic brain injury are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as seniors with no history of brain injury.
Falls take an enormous physical, emotional, and financial toll on our nation’s seniors. In addition to the pain and suffering, falls can affect a senior’s ability to live independently and can lead to a compromised qualify of life and thus, isolation and depression. In addition, many people who fall, even if they are not injured, can develop a fear of falling. This may cause them to limit their activities, resulting in reduced mobility and physical activity and even further increasing their risk of falling.
As outlined in our bipartisan Senate resolution, in 2010, the total direct medical cost of fall-related injuries for older adults was $30 billion. If the current rate of falls does not decrease, the CDC projects that the cost of injuries from falls could reach more than $67 billion by 2020. Given our nation’s aging population and the increasing rate of fall-related injuries among seniors, it is critical that we raise awareness about this problem and ways to help prevent it.
Evidence-based programs that emphasize cost-effective strategies—such as exercise programs to improve strength and balance, medication management, vision improvement, and reduction in home hazards—will play a key role in this effort. Awareness efforts, such as those of the National Council on Aging, the CDC, and local aging organizations, are vitally important.
For example, the CDC has available a checklist for things that older individuals can do to help prevent falls including: exercising regularly; having a doctor evaluate medications, including over-the-counter medications, as some medications can cause dizziness or tiredness; checking vision annually since poor vision can increase the risk of falling; and reducing home hazards by improving lighting.
There are many organizations throughout Maine, including several Agencies on Aging, that offer important fall awareness programs such as fall risk assessments and exercise and balance programs.
One of the biggest myths about falls is that they are a normal part of aging. They are not. It is my hope that our bipartisan Senate resolution will help raise awareness of falls and in turn help reverse the dangerous trend of increasing senior falls.