It’s no secret that as we age, we become increasingly at risk of falling, and fall-related injuries are more dangerous for older adults. What researchers recently learned, however, is potentially significant: a definitive link between cognitive slowing and fall risk, and an opportunity to provide better care for those living with dementia.
Manuel Montero-Odasso, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, and his colleagues set out to study the role of cognition in falls, with the hope of managing and even preventing them in older adults.
Their study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society last year, measured the relationship between gait and cognition in aging adults. The study showed that low performance in attention and executive function was associated with “gait slowing, instability, and future falls.” In addition, older adults with dementia who experience a fall are five times more likely to be admitted to long-term care facilities. They are at higher risk for fractures, head injuries compared to older adults without dementia who experience a fall.
Montero-Odasso and his team concluded that older adults living with dementia should have cognitive training specifically related to their motor function. Montero-Odasso also said he is optimistic about the role virtual reality might play as a therapeutic tool.
Fall risk is more common than you think
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, more than one in three people age 65 years or older falls each year. There are many factors at play, the HHS says. As we age, our eyesight, reflexes, and hearing aren’t what they used to be. Common health issues older adults face, such as thyroid or nerve issues, can also make a person more prone to a fall. In addition, some medications cause drowsiness, which might be enough to cause someone to catch their foot on the end of a rug and be unable to catch themselves before falling.
What else can older adults – and those soon to join the older adult population – do to prevent falls before they happen? The HHS has several suggestions:
- Stay physically active– Regular exercise keeps muscles, joints, and ligaments healthy and flexible, and may also slow bone loss due to osteoporosis
- Have your eyesight and hearing tested– Ensure your glasses or contacts prescription is up to date, and if you have a hearing aid, always wear it
- Ask about the side effects of your medications
- Get enough sleep!
- Limit alcohol consumption – Even a small amount can be enough to affect your reflexes
- Stand up slowly– Getting up too quickly can cause your blood pressure to drop, which could be worsened by blood pressure medication
- Use an assistive device if you need help feeling steady when you walk
- Be very careful when walking on wet or icy surfaces
- Wear good shoes– Non-skid, rubber-soled, low-heeled shoes that fully support your feet can make a big difference
- Always tell your doctor if you have fallen since your last checkup, even if you aren’t hurt when you fall – A fall could be the result of a new health issue, so your doctor needs to know about it