On any given day, every 18 seconds, an older adult lands in the emergency room because of a fall. And nearly 23,000 deaths a year are linked to falls. Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Robert Atkins, M.D, of Atkins diet fame, for example, both died as a result of falls.
But when her dog yanked on the leash during a walk on an icy sidewalk, Sandra Perkins was prepared. The 65-year-old retired nurse from Hazel Crest, Ill., had just finished a training program at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she practiced recovering from slips and trips. Twice a week for two weeks, Perkins put on a harness, stepped on a specially designed treadmill and learned how to respond to slippery situations created by the researchers.
“What I’d learned to do on the treadmill became automatic, and I didn’t hit the ground,” Perkins says.
More than a third of people age 65 and older fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Deaths from falls are largely due to head injuries or hip fractures that lead to extended hospitalizations.
CDC figures in 2006 showed that falls contributed to 1.8 million emergency room visits by Americans age 65 and older. By 2008, that number had climbed to 2.1 million.
And the problem, says Judy A. Stevens, a senior epidemiologist with the CDC’s Injury Center, is going to continue to get worse as the population ages.
But researchers, scientists and doctors are not giving up. They’re in a race against time to use new technologies—and old—to prevent falls. Indeed, just talking to a doctor about how to avoid a spill can be vital.
The CDC’s Stevens says learning how to prevent falls not only helps people avoid injuries, but also helps them preserve their independence, their ability to walk to the store, visit friends, navigate their own homes.
The federal government supports these anti-fall efforts through the Safety of Seniors Act (SOS), enacted in 2008 to fund projects, research and education. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., one of the bill’s sponsors, called falls among the aging a “serious public health issue.”