Health Team

Falls are fifth-leading cause of death for people over 65

Posted September 28, 2011
Updated September 29, 2011

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— When most people slip and fall, they're able to get up again. However, accidental falls are the fifth-leading cause of death for people over 65 in the U.S. One in three people in that age group will experience a fall every year, according to health experts.

Richard Wall, 67, suffered a fall last April. He says his weight, at more than 300 pounds, led to back and knee problems and eventually the fall.

“I walked up to my sink and said, ‘I'll wash the dishes,’ and the next thing I knew, I was washing the floor,” he said.

Wall was unable to get up for two hours before help arrived. Now, he uses a walker at home and a wheelchair when he goes out. However, careless mistakes can be serious.

“If you fall, you have a potential for breaking your hip. You have a potential for brain injury and hospitalization,” said Dr. Jan Busby-Whitehead, with UNC Hospitals' geriatrics department.

People who fall also can lose strength during hospitalization, which puts them at greater risk of other health complications and more falls, experts say.

Richard Wall uses a walker. Falls are fifth-leading cause of death for elderly

Those most at risk are people over age 65 who are on four or more medications or have vision problems, people with diabetes who've lost some sensation in their feet, those with arthritis pain in the joints and those who've lost muscle mass and strength with age.

“The good news is you can do an exercise program to improve your muscle strength even up into your 90s,” Busby-Whitehead said.

People with risk factors need to see their doctor and get a risk assessment. They also need to have their home environment evaluated for fall risks, such as trip hazards and other obstacles. They may need hand rails installed, especially in the bathroom.

UNC physical therapist Tiffany Shubert helps clients like Wall find the right devices for their needs and abilities, but that alone won't prevent a fall.

“Canes and walkers are implicated in about 30 percent of all E.R. visits due to a fall, and it's because people don't know how to use them and how to use them safely,” Shubert said.

Safety is now Wall's highest priority.

“Well, if you go down and you stay there for four hours before anybody can help you, you learn not to ever do that again,” he said.


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  • davidgnews Oct 3, 2011

    This is especially complicated with the use of blood thinners.

    With a head injury, they can cause you to bleed where you would otherwise bruise, setting up a scenario for a cerebral hematoma.

  • Scubagirl Sep 29, 2011

    It's not the falls that kills them, it's the sequelae from it-many get pneumonia or infections etc. But I don't disagree that it's the first thing to happen, all else comes later.