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During a time when the U.S. is so focused on reducing the cost of overall medical expenses, many physical therapists and other medical professionals are eager to share a staggering number they say could be significantly reduced through preventative care: $67.7 billion.
That, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will be the total cost for fall injuries experienced by older Americans (65+) in the year 2020. Medicare and Medicaid will cover about three-quarters of these costs.
“Falling is a massive and complex issue,” said Dr. Samuel Nyman, a researcher from Bournemouth University in the U.K., which focuses on issues related to aging, such as fall prevention. “It has lots of risk factors, and there is not just one solution.”
One out of every four Americans 65 and older experience falls each year, says the CDC, leading to more than 2.8 injuries which span the spectrum from bumps, bruises and sprains to broken bones and head trauma. Fall injuries from this population account for more than 50 percent of injury-related hospital admissions.
“It is an issue for people of an older age because their reaction times are slower, so they are less likely to stop themselves,” said Dr. Nyman. “The consequences are also far greater, too. Falls are more likely to result in fractures, which are one of the main triggers of going into a care home.”
However, research has determined that people of all ages can vastly reduce the risk of falling through exercise that focuses on both strength and balance. In fact, multiple studies show that strength and balance training can most effectively lead to a reduction in falls among older adults.
Also, taking physical therapist-led group exercise classes has specifically been shown to reduce the risk of falls while increasing balance and improving quality of life.
“Our message is that some form of exercise will improve balance, and it’s never too late to exercise – specifically, exercise that challenges your balance is best,” said Tracey Howe, a researcher on aging and professor of rehabilitation sciences at Cochrane Global Ageing. “Good balance allows you to react to change.”
Reducing the incidence of falls, however, requires more than general exercise. Physical therapists agree that fall prevention starts with this four-pronged approach:
Fall Screening: If fall prevention is the goal, an assessment of an individual’s personal risk of falling is an ideal place to start. A thorough fall screening will take a look into a person’s strength, balance and coordination, as well as other factors such as vision, medication, medical history, footwear, and even home safety.
Balance Training: A key to preventing falls is to maintain and improve balance. Doing so means continually challenging your body’s balance through personalized (and safe) exercises — single-leg stands, for instance.
Strength Exercises: Maintaining good lower-body strength has been specifically cited as another key factor in fall prevention. A physical therapist can assess a person’s individual strengths and weaknesses and create a program that specifically addresses muscle groups that can improve balance and gait.
Environment Assessment: A fall prevention strategy must always include specific suggestions on how to improve one’s environment for the sake of safety. Decluttering walk spaces, securing loose rugs, creating non-slip surfaces in the shower or tub, and even improving footwear and eyewear can all go far in preventing falls.
Physical therapists are specifically trained to assess a person’s fall risk and develop an individualized plan to help with fall prevention. So contact your local physical therapist to take steps to maintain your independence and keep long-term health care costs in check.