Preventing Falls Among our Nation’s Seniors

  Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among seniors.  Each year, approximately 2.5 million older Americans are treated in emergency rooms after a fall, and nearly three-quarters of a million subsequently are hospitalized.  Tragically, more than 25,500 die as a result of their injuries.
 
      The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts these staggering statistics in a context that really brings the problem home: one out of every three seniors fall each year; every 13 seconds, a seniors is treated in an emergency room for a fall; every 20 seconds, a senior dies from a fall.
 
      In addition to the human toll, these falls generate enormous economic costs.  In 2013, it was estimated that the total cost of treating fall injuries among seniors was $34 billion.  As more members of the Baby Boomer generation reach retirement age, these costs could nearly double within the next five years.
 
      Beyond the pain, suffering, and expense, falls can affect a seniors’ ability to live independently and can lead to a compromised quality of life and thus, to isolation and depression.  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.
 
      This trend can be reversed through proven measures.  As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I recently authored a bipartisan resolution designating September 23, 2015 – the first day of the fall season – as Falls Prevention Awareness Day to better educate seniors, families, and caregivers – as well as government and civic organizations – about the practices, programs, and policies that can be taken to reduce the risk of falls.
 
      As a senator representing the state with the oldest median age, I am especially concerned that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maine is eighth in the nation in the percentage of seniors who suffer falls.  In 2010, the average medical cost of each fall in Maine was $16,000.  A recent news story on this issue reported that at Maine Medical Center in Portland, our state’s largest hospital, the emergency department treats at least one senior who has fallen during every shift.
 
      The Mayo Clinic offers a brief checklist of simple fall-prevention strategies:

  1. Seniors should make appointments to see their doctor.  
  2. Bring a list of medications and supplements to be reviewed for interactions and side-effects that can lead to falls.
  3. Discuss health conditions – particularly eye and ear disorders – that may affect balance. 
  4. Write down the details of previous falls. This is especially important as research shows that individuals with histories of moderate traumatic brain injuries that result from even minor falls are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as seniors with no history of brain injury. 
  5. Keep moving – physical activity is a key to fall prevention.  Walking, swimming, and low-impact exercise that involves slow and graceful movements improve balance, strength, and coordination.


      Family members and other caregivers can help seniors evaluate their homes for fall-inducing hazards.  These include electrical cords, loose rugs, and small items of furniture, such as coffee table, plant stands, and magazine racks.  Some types of footwear – high heels, floppy slippers, and shoes with slick soles – contribute to falls.  Assistive devices – like grab bars in the shower or tub, hand rails on both sides of a staircase, and nonslip treads on stairs – can be easily installed and can prevent injuries and save lives.
 
      It is also important to make sure the home has adequate lighting and that light switches are easy to access.  Night lights and bedside lamps are essential, as are working flashlights in easy-to-find places. 
 
      There are many organizations throughout Maine, including several Area Agencies on Aging, which offer important fall awareness programs such as fall risk assessments and exercise and balance programs.  In addition, our resolution urges relevant federal, state, and local organizations to work to help educate seniors about ways they can reduce the risks of injury, or death, that may result from a fall.
 
      Falling is not an inevitable consequence of aging.  Practical lifestyle adjustments, evidence-based prevention programs, community partnerships, and continued research are among the tools available to reduce falls.  It is my hope that our bipartisan Senate resolution will help raise awareness of falls and, in turn, help reverse the national trend of increasing senior falls.