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What You Can Do to Prevent a Fall

Medications, exercise, environment make a difference

When kids fall down, they can usually get up and return to play quickly. But for older adults, falls can be serious.

Among adults over age 65, falls are a threat to health and independence. They also are common. More than one-third of adults over age 65 fall each year. They account for about 2 million emergency department visits, data collected by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality shows. About three-quarters of those treated are women.

One-third of older adults who fall suffer moderate to serious injuries, including hip fractures and head trauma. Falls often send seniors from a hospital to a nursing home or long-term care facility for follow-up care. This may be difficult physically and emotionally.

While there's no simple solution to stop falls and their serious effects, there is progress. We're learning more about why falls occur and, more important, steps to prevent them.

Falls happen for many reasons. Aging often causes declines in vision, balance and strength, making falls more likely. As we age, we are also more likely to take medicines that can cause dizziness, slow our reaction time or cause other side effects. Finally, how a person's home is set up can increase the risk for falls.

Here are some things you can do to reduce the chance that you or a loved one will get hurt by a fall:

Know your medicines

  • Make sure your doctor knows which medicines you take. I can't overstate how important it is to keep a current list of all of your prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Show this list to your doctor and pharmacist at each visit. Your doctor or pharmacist can tell you, for example, if a medicine to treat blood pressure can cause dizziness and how to avoid problems.
  • Find out if a new medicine replaces one you already take. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if the new drug will cause side effects with drugs you already take.
  • Ask how to take new medicine correctly. Make sure you find out how often to take it and whether you should take the drug with food. Tell your doctor if you have side effects.
  • Be sure to monitor your heart rate, blood pressure or blood sugar at home, if recommended by your doctor.
  • Remember that alcohol interacts with many medicines. It can make side effects, like dizziness, worse.

Stay strong with exercise

  • Talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program. Doctors can recommend specific exercises for you.
  • Listen to your body and know your limits. But keep in mind that it takes time to build and regain strength.

Create a safe environment

Have your home checked. Home assessments help determine the safety of your home and identify ways to make it safer. Suggestions may include installing grab bars in the bathtub and making sure rugs are securely fastened. Area Agencies on Aging can provide informationand referrals to local home modification programs.

Talk to your doctor to see if a cane, walker or other device can help you maintain balance. Make sure the device is adjusted for your height.

Ask your doctor or hospital about a personal medical response system. Research shows that people who have fallen are more likely to fall again. Technology offers a good defense against that risk. Personal medical response systems activated by a wristband or pendant alert family or emergency services if you fall. Your doctor or hospital is probably familiar with local response systems in your area.

There's no doubt about it: Falls can be serious. That's why preventing falls before they happen is the wisest course of action.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

Carolyn M. Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.