This is part of a monthly series of articles underwritten by Health Projects Center and Del Mar Caregivers on senior health
Among the many health challenges that come with aging, injury-causing falls are among the most dangerous—and the most preventable. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that over 3 million seniors are injured every year in falls, with over 800,000 hospitalized. One in five falls results in broken bones or head injury. Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury leading to death in seniors.
They are also costly. The CDC estimates that the annual amount spent on medical costs of non-fatal falls by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance is $50 billion. Another $754 million goes to medical costs related to fatal falls.
There are important precautions within the home that can be taken to help prevent falls, such as securing loose rugs, making sure electrical cords or other obstructions are not within walkways, and installing assistive devices such as handrails and grab bars. But increasing physical activity, along with a program of exercise and balance training, are also important.
“The root causes of falls can be anything from posture issues, standing up too fast, the way you walk, or from just not being active enough,” said Britt Bassoni of the Seniors Council of Santa Cruz and San Benito County. “Some seniors think that, since they are getting older, they should become more sedentary to limit their chances of falling, but it is the exact opposite.”
A study published by the British Medical Journal found that exercise programs were able to reduce falls that caused serious injury by 37%, and those causing broken bones by 61%. It concluded that regular exercise could improve reaction time and coordination, build muscles, strengthen bones and increase brain function.
“Your chances of a fall increase with inactivity,” Bassoni said. “You lose your leg strength and your gait becomes uneven. And it makes sense—if you decide to cut back on walking around, you put yourself in danger when you do have to walk more than you are used to. You set yourself up for the accident you were trying to avoid.”
Bassoni said it’s important to become aware that getting older means your ability to hold your balance and your physical strength are declining.
“You can improve things by tapping into what is going on with you and your body in a way that some people don’t pay attention to as they get older,” Bassoni said. “As you get older you get to a point where you have seen and done things over and over and you pay less attention to them. You might not notice, for example, that you do not have the balance you used to have when going up a ladder.”
While the body naturally breaks down over time, there are often ways to slow down and even reverse the impact age has on balance and strength.
“There are several components that go into balance,” said Mary Margaret Lanning, owner of Overall Fitness and Nutrition in Hollister. “Some of the reasons are that you have foot, hip, or knee problems and the imbalances of the strength of the muscles around joints. There is also kyphosis, which is the arching of the back when a person will start to lean forward, and the shortening of muscle in the hip socket area, which means you start to shuffle to catch yourself.”
Lanning suggests starting with a diet that will help to strengthen bones and muscles along with a program of exercise and physical therapy.
“When I do training,” Lanning said, “I use myoskeletal alignment therapies to do a posture-perfect workshop or class where I teach people from the inside out how they can prevent falls. We work with people to show where in their bodies it is most important for them to have perfect alignment. When you have perfect alignment, you are less likely to compensate for your posture and fall over.”
It involves more than standing up straight. The goal is to have the muscles and bones properly aligned.
“You want to balance your body side to side, top to bottom, and front to back,” Lanning said. “If your body is able to support itself while you are on your feet, you will not see these kinds of falls or accidents.”
One simple exercise Lanning uses is to have the patient stand with their back and heels against a wall. They would then start by lifting one leg up and swinging it back and forth.
“It is a good exercise for alignment,” Lanning said, “because when you are walking, you step out on one leg and have to maintain your balance. For some people, just standing against the wall like that is difficult, but if you can do it, with your head, back, hips and heels against the wall, you are starting in a good posturing position.”
John Robrock, 68, came to Lanning when his posture problems had become almost crippling.
“I retired in 2019 because I could barely move,” he said. “I threw my hip out and my knees were bone on bone. I had my knee worked on but when I walked it was hard to balance. I would strain and shift and I did trip a few times. And if I could not catch myself I would hit the ground. I started doing therapy to help get back to walking straight.”
The therapy program started off slowly, but Robrock made quick progress.
“I came to Mary Margaret all hunched over and she said, ‘We need to straighten you out,’” he said. “There were a lot of warm-up exercises and stretching. I was moving around on steps just to warm up the muscles. As we went along, she taught me how to do things. She would show me the correct approaches to various exercises and motions. And working with her, I started getting upright again. Anybody can do what I did. It just takes time.”
The Seniors Council maintains a referral service for local strength and balance classes and can help locate web-based virtual alternatives. Several gyms and organizations such as the YMCA of San Benito County offer senior fitness programs as well.
BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Health Projects Center and Del Mar Caregivers for helping expand our senior health coverage. Health Projects Center supports more reporting on senior health issues and solutions in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.
Since 1988, Del Mar Caregiver Resource Center (CRC) has served families of persons living with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Stroke, Traumatic Brain Injury and other conditions that cause memory loss and confusion.