Injuries due to falls are one of the most common reasons older adults end up in hospital.
Approximately one-third of people 65 years of age and older and half of people 80 years and older will fall each year. Of these, approximately 1,600 will be hospitalized, spending an average of 17 days in hospital. About 130 older adults will die due to injuries sustained in falls.
These numbers represent a major health issue for older adults -- one many experts believe will only grow as Manitoba's population continues to age.
Of course, many of these injuries occur during the winter months -- the snow and ice on city streets making it difficult for people of all ages to get around. But it would be a mistake to think winter is the sole reason for injuries sustained through falls. Research shows injuries from falls occur fairly evenly throughout the year.
Generally speaking, falls can be caused by personal factors, such as poor vision or incorrect eyewear, some types of medications, poor nutrition and low blood pressure. They can also be caused by external factors such as poor lighting in the home, cracked sidewalks, slippery walkways and clutter.
Fortunately, there are things that can be done to reduce the risk of falls. For example, older adults can eliminate hazards around the home, have their medications reviewed, check their eyes and eyewear and eat nutritious foods throughout the day.
And they can also exercise.
At first glance, it may seem hard to see the relationship between exercise and preventing falls. But as we get older, we lose muscle mass, strength and balance. This, in turn, increases our odds of falling. Conversely, regular exercise can help build muscle mass and improve our balance, reducing our chances of falling.
It is never too late to start exercising. A recent study of men 91 to 96 years of age found they significantly improved their balance, reduced their chances of falling, increased walking speed and were able to get out of a chair more easily after taking a strength and balance exercise program.
There are many ways to exercise. Some people enjoy group exercise classes for the social aspects. If classes aren't for you or if you can't get out, you can exercise in your own home using home exercise sheets or a DVD. Look for a program that focuses on balance, strength and endurance. It is important to find ways to exercise that are fun and you enjoy. Here are some options:
Tai chi: This exercise routine involves slow, controlled moving and has been proven to improve balance and reduce falls.
Wii Fit or similar video games: Interactive video games are fun and some are designed to help improve your balance and leg strength.
Yoga: The poses can help improve balance as well, as long as many are in the standing position.
Pilates: These exercises focus on improving strength, especially in your core muscles such as your abdomen and back. This can improve stability and balance.
If you are an older adult starting to exercise, you should discuss your plans with your health-care provider. Be sure to mention if you have been feeling weak, dizzy or light-headed, have blurred vision, or ringing in the ears.
The best advice is to start slow and progress when you feel you are ready to. Ideally, you should get about 20 minutes of exercise a day.
Dr. Lynne Warda is medical director of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's injury-prevention program and an emergency physician at Children's Hospital.