Former First Lady Nancy Reagan lost her footing and nearly fell on Tuesday evening at an event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. She was unhurt, but her public stumble serves as a reminder of the health consequences of trips, slips and falls for older adults.
Falls are not unusual for people over the age of 65. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three adults in this age group falls each year. These falls can have severe consequences -- hip fractures, head trauma, even death. The CDC reports that more than 18,000 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries in 2007.
"It's not age itself that puts people at risk for falling," said Dr. Mary Tinetti, a geriatrician at the Yale School of Medicine. "But as people get older, they accumulate more of the illnesses and impairments that put them at risk for falling."
Not surprisingly, problems with balance can often lead to falls, but so can decreased strength and flexibility, difficulties with memory or thinking, vision and hearing problems, and even depression.
"Coincidentally, a lot of the medications that we give to help these impairments contribute to falling," said Tinetti, because some drugs can make people feel off-balance by decreasing alertness or altering blood pressure.
The consequences of falling are not only physical. Many experts noted that a person who has fallen may develop a fear of falling again. This fear can keep people from being as active as they once were. "The less functional and mobile you are, your risk of falling goes up," Tinetti said. "It really is a vicious circle."
Falls can be harmful, but they are also preventable. Some tips from the CDC and experts:
Exercise regularly, and focus on exercises that increase leg strength and improve balance, such as Tai Chi.
Be aware of your blood pressure, not only when sitting, but when you are standing as well.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review your medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter, to reduce side effects or interactions that may cause dizziness or drowsiness.
Make your home safer by reducing tripping hazards, such as poor lighting, cords, rugs and clutter. You can also add grab bars and railings.
Have your eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year and make sure your glasses are the correct prescription. People who wear bifocals should take them off when going up and down stairs, said Tinetti.
Keep a pair of slippers with good soles next to your bed to wear if you have to get up at night. You are more likely to fall with bare feet or just wearing socks.
The cause of Nancy Reagan's fall? A spokesperson from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library said she tripped over a stanchion used to hold a rope for crowd control.
For more on how older Americans can avoid fall-related injuries, check out the Fall Stop… MOVE STRONG website.