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Falls in Older People

By

Laurence Z. Rubenstein

, MD, MPH, University of Oklahoma College of Medicine

Last full review/revision Apr 2021| Content last modified Apr 2021
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Topic Resources
  • Most falls occur when older people with one or more physical conditions that impair mobility or balance encounter an environmental hazard.

  • Although many people have no symptoms before a fall, some have dizziness or other symptoms.

  • After a fall, people may have broken bones or bruises.

  • Doctors often do tests to evaluate whether an underlying condition contributed to the fall.

  • Falls may be prevented by taking precautions around the home.

  • After injuries are treated, people work with physical therapists to help reduce the risk of subsequent falls.

Falls are common among older people. About one third of older people who live at home fall at least once a year, and about half of people who live in a nursing home fall. In the United States, falls are the leading cause of accidental death and the 7th leading cause of death in people age 65 or over. Once a person has had a fall, they are more likely to fall again.

Many older people fear falling. Fear of falling can lead to problems. People may worry about doing their usual activities and thus lose their self-confidence and even their independence. Older people can do many things to help overcome their fears and to reduce their risk of falling. Knowing what causes falls can help.

Did You Know...

  • Although many older people fall, falls are not a normal part of growing older.

Causes of Falls

Falls can be caused by physical conditions that impair mobility or balance, hazards in the environment, or potentially hazardous situations. Most falls occur when several causes interact. For example, people with Parkinson disease Parkinson Disease (PD) Parkinson disease is a slowly progressive degenerative disorder of specific areas of the brain. It is characterized by tremor when muscles are at rest (resting tremor), increased muscle tone... read more and impaired vision (physical conditions) may trip on an extension cord (an environmental hazard) while rushing to answer the telephone (a potentially hazardous situation).

A person's physical condition is affected by changes due to aging itself, physical fitness, disorders present, and drugs used. The physical condition probably has a greater effect on the risk of falling than do environmental hazards and hazardous situations. Not only does a poor or impaired physical condition increase the risk of falls, but it also affects how people respond to hazards and hazardous situations.

Physical impairments that increase the risk of falling include those involving

  • Balance or walking

  • Vision

  • Sensation, particularly in the feet

  • Muscle strength

  • Cognition

  • Blood pressure or heartbeat

Use of drugs that affect attention (for example, opioid analgesics, antianxiety drugs, and some antidepressant drugs) or lower blood pressure (for example, antihypertensive, diuretic, and some heart drugs) can also increase the risk of falling.

Hazards in the environment are involved in many falls. Falls may occur when people do not notice a hazard or do not respond quickly enough after a hazard is noticed.

Environmental hazards that increase the risk of falling include

  • Inadequate lighting

  • Throw rugs

  • Slippery floors

  • Electrical or extension cords or objects that are in the way of walking

  • Uneven sidewalks and broken curbs

  • Unfamiliarity with surroundings

Most falls occur indoors. Some happen while people are standing still. But most occur while people are moving—getting in or out of bed or a chair, getting on or off a toilet seat, walking, or going up or down stairs. While moving, people may stumble or trip, or balance may be lost. Any movement can be hazardous. But if people are rushing or if their attention is divided, movement becomes even more hazardous. For example, rushing to the bathroom (especially at night when not fully awake or when lighting may be poor) or to answer the telephone or talking on a cordless phone can make walking more hazardous.

Symptoms of Falls

Often before falling, people have no symptoms. When an environmental hazard or a hazardous situation results in a fall, there is little or no warning. However, if a fall is partly or completely due to a person’s physical condition, symptoms may be noticed before falling. Symptoms may include

  • Dizziness

  • Light-headedness

  • Irregular or rapid, pounding heartbeats (palpitations)

After a fall, injuries are common and tend to be more severe as people age. Over half of all falls result in at least a slight injury, such as a bruise, sprained ligament, or strained muscle. More serious injuries include broken bones, torn ligaments, deep cuts, and damage to organs such as a kidney or the liver. About 2% of falls result in a broken hip. Other bones (in the upper arm, wrist, and pelvis) are broken in about 5% of falls. Some falls result in loss of consciousness or a head injury.

Falls can cause even more problems if people cannot get up right away or summon help. Such a situation may be frightening and may make people feel helpless. Remaining on the floor, even for a few hours, can lead to problems such as

The effects of a fall may last a long time. About half of people who could walk before they fell and broke a hip cannot walk as well afterward, even after treatment and rehabilitation. People who have fallen may develop a fear of falling that robs them of their self-confidence. As a result, they may stay at home and give up activities, such as shopping, visiting friends, and cleaning. When people become less active, joints can become stiff and muscles can become weak. Stiff joints and weak muscles can further increase the risk of falling and make remaining active and independent more difficult. For many people, falls seem to be an important factor in the decision to move to a nursing home Nursing Homes Nursing homes are for people who need help with health care for chronic conditions but do not need to be hospitalized. The decision to move to a nursing home may be triggered by a change in... read more or an assisted-living facility Assisted–Living Communities Assisted-living communities are designed for people who need some help with daily activities (for example, with bathing, dressing, or taking their drugs as prescribed). These communities can... read more . For all these reasons, falls can greatly reduce quality of life.

Some falls can be serious and result in death. Death may occur immediately—for example, when the head hits a hard surface and causes uncontrolled bleeding in or around the brain. Much more commonly, death occurs later, resulting from complications of serious injuries caused by the fall.

Diagnosis of Falls

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Sometimes laboratory tests

It is vitally important for people to tell their doctor if they have fallen, even if the doctor has not asked, so that the doctor can uncover treatable reasons behind the fall. People who have fallen may be reluctant to tell their doctor because they think falling is just part of getting older, especially if they have not been injured. Even people who have been seriously injured during a fall and have been treated in an emergency department may be reluctant to admit they have fallen. They may not want others to think they are helpless and now must move from their home into a more supervised environment such as a nursing home.

To identify the cause of the fall, doctors ask about the circumstances of the fall, including any symptoms experienced just before the fall (such as chest pain, vertigo, and shortness of breath) and any activities that may have contributed to the fall. They ask any witnesses to the fall to describe what they saw. Doctors also ask about the use of prescription and nonprescription drugs or alcohol that may have contributed to the fall. Doctors ask people whether they lost consciousness and whether they were able to get up without help.

Doctors do a physical examination first to check for injuries and to obtain information about possible causes of the fall. Parts of the examination include the following:

Doctors sometimes ask people to do some usual activities, such as sitting in a chair and then standing up and walking or stepping up on a step. Observing these activities may help doctors identify conditions that contributed to the fall.

If the fall resulted from an environmental hazard and no major injury occurred, no tests may be done. However, when people’s physical condition could have contributed to the fall, tests may be needed. For example, when the physical examination detects evidence of a heart problem, heart rate and rhythm may be recorded using electrocardiography (ECG). This test may take a few minutes and be done in the doctor’s office, or people may be asked to wear a portable ECG device (Holter monitor Holter Monitor: Continuous ECG Readings A standard electrocardiograph (ECG) records the heart's electrical activity for only a few seconds. This can detect abnormalities that are constant; however, sometimes abnormal heart rhythms... read more ) for 1 or 2 days. Blood tests, such as a complete blood count and measurements of electrolyte levels, may be helpful in people who have been experiencing dizziness or light-headedness. If the nervous system appears to be malfunctioning, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head may be helpful.

Prevention of Falls

Older people can do many simple, practical things to help reduce the risk of falling.

Just the Right Height

For people who are recovering from a leg injury or surgery, using a cane that is the correct height is important. A cane that is too long or too short can cause low back pain, poor posture, and instability. The cane should be held on the side opposite the injured leg.

Just the Right Height

Hazards in the environment can sometimes be removed or corrected (see table ).

  • Lighting can be improved by increasing the number of lights or changing the types of lights.

  • Light switches can be positioned so that they are easily reached. Motion-sensitive lights or lights that turn on when they are touched can be used.

  • Adequate lighting for steps (inside and outside) and for outdoor areas used at night is particularly important. Steps should have nonskid treads and sturdy, secure handrails. Bright-colored adhesive strips can be applied to clearly mark steps.

  • Electrical or extension cords that are in the way of walking can be eliminated by adding more electrical outlets, or the cords may be tacked over doorways or beneath floor coverings.

  • Items that clutter floors and stairways can be stored out of the way of walking.

  • Grab bars can be installed next to toilets, tubs, and other places for people who need something to hold onto when they stand up. Grab bars must be installed correctly, so that they do not pull out of the wall.

  • Elevated toilet seats can help.

  • Loose throw rugs can be removed or taped or tacked down or nonskid backs can be used.

  • Nonslip mats should be used in the bathroom and kitchen.

  • Frequently used household items can be stored in cabinets, cupboards, or other spaces between waist and eye level, so that they can be reached without stretching or bending.

Learning how to safely handle potentially hazardous situations may be more important than removing an environmental hazard. Sometimes people need to pay more attention to potential hazards and think about ways to accomplish daily tasks more safely. For example, they can place cordless phones around the home so that they do not have to rush to answer phone calls.

Falls cannot always be prevented. So, people who are likely to fracture a hip, such as people who have osteoporosis Osteoporosis read more , should maximize the strength of their bones by taking adequate calcium and vitamin D and taking additional prescription drugs to slow their bone loss. Some people in nursing or residential care facilities Nursing Homes Nursing homes are for people who need help with health care for chronic conditions but do not need to be hospitalized. The decision to move to a nursing home may be triggered by a change in... read more may consider wearing a hip protector, an undergarment with a plastic and foam pad placed over the hip. Hip protectors may prevent hip fractures if worn regularly by people in care facilities, but they have not been shown to be as effective for people living independently at home.

Knowing what to do if a fall occurs can help older people be less afraid of falling. If they fall and cannot get up, they can turn onto their stomach, crawl to a piece of furniture (or other structure that can support their weight), and pull themselves up.

Older people should also have a good way to call for help. People who have fallen several times may keep a telephone in a place that can be reached from the floor. Another option is installing a personal emergency response system (a medical alert device) that signals someone to check in on them. Most of these systems include an alert button worn on a necklace. Pressing the button calls for help.

Table
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Treatment of Falls

  • Treat injuries from falls

  • Treat disorders and teach people how to prevent subsequent falls

The first priority is treatment of injuries, such as head injuries, fractures, sprained ligaments, and strained muscles.

The next priority is to prevent subsequent falls by treating disorders that may have contributed to the fall. For example, in people who have a very slow heart rate accompanied by light-headedness, a pacemaker for the heart may be implanted. If possible, potentially harmful drugs are stopped, the dose is reduced, or another drug is substituted.

More Information about Falls

The following are English-language resources that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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Nursing Homes
Nursing homes are for people who need help managing chronic health conditions, but who do not need to be hospitalized. In the United States, the term “nursing home” has a specific meaning. Which of the following is the correct definition of a “nursing home”?
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