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Health Care & Insurance

Don't Let a Fall Trip Up Your Life

Prevent falls by taking tai chi, rearranging your furniture and checking your vision.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the August 2007 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

Alex Sergienko, 76, is determined to stay active and independent as he ages. The Tacoma, Wash., resident takes exercise classes three times a week to help him build endurance, balance and flexibility. Sure, exercise will help fortify his body against heart disease and other illnesses. But Sergienko sees his workout regimen as a line of attack against the possibility of falling.

The retired school superintendent has reason for concern. Falling is one of the biggest threats to the independence of older adults. Each year, one-third of older adults who do not live in nursing homes take a tumble. About 30% of those who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries, including hip fractures and head trauma. Complications resulting from falls are the top cause of death from injury in men and women age 65 and older, according to the American Geriatrics Society.

"It's a huge silent problem," says Sally York, interim director of NorthWest Orthopaedic Institute, in Tacoma. "Everyone knows a senior who has had a fall injury, but there is still a lot of apathy about this problem."

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The good news? "At least half of all falls are preventable," says Dr. Laurence Rubenstein, a professor of medicine who specializes in geriatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles. "One of the most important things to do is look for the risk factors."

People who report they have fallen in the previous six months or who have a history of falls are at higher risk for falling again, says Rubenstein. Muscle weakness is one of the prime danger signs. If you use your arms when you get out of a chair, you're at least four times more likely to fall than someone who can move more easily from a sitting position. Others at greater risk are those with gait or balance problems, vision issues, arthritis, depression or memory problems. Certain medications, such as antidepressants, can increase the possibility of falling.

Whether or not you have a risk factor, you should take steps to avoid the chance of taking a tumble. Studies show that even simple measures, such as rearranging furniture, can prevent falls. Sergienko's exercise class is paying off, for example. The class is part of a study to assess whether exercise and education could prevent falls. The Washington State Department of Health study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that older people who attend exercise classes more than twice a week are about 40% less likely to fall. If you'd like to protect yourself, consider these strategies.

Begin an exercise program. Exercise is one of the best prevention measures because it helps increase strength. Try tai chi and other exercises that improve balance and coordination. Ask your doctor about age-appropriate exercises. Many community senior centers, hospitals and YMCAs offer exercise programs for seniors.

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Check out your health. Many manageable medical conditions, such as low blood pressure and diabetes, can increase the risk of falling, so see your physician for a checkup. Also, ask your doctor or pharmacist to review all of your medicines, including over-the-counter drugs. Certain drugs, or combinations of medicines, can make you dizzy or sleepy. Also, get your eyes checked annually.

Fall-proof your home. About half of all falls occur at home, so remove books, clutter and electrical cords from areas where you walk, including stairs. Get rid of small throw rugs or use double-sided tape to prevent rugs from slipping. Don't use step stools. Install grab bars in the bathroom, and use non-slip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors. Improve lighting, especially on staircases.

For more fall-prevention tips, visit the Web sites of these organizations: American Geriatrics Society Foundation (www.healthinaging.org/agingintheknow and click "Elder Health at Your Fingertips"); National Institutes of Health (www.nihseniorhealth.gov and click "Falls and Older Adults"); and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov and type "adult falls" into search engine).