Dr Tim Henwood
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), BSc (Bachelor of Science Class 1 Honours) Human Movement Studies, BSc Sport & Exercise Science, Exercise Physiologist, Aged Care Specialist.
The potential impact of falls should never be underestimated. The reality is, they can be deadly, especially for older adults. Falls can lead to hip and wrist fractures or other physical injuries, but may also have psychological effects that can begin a downward spiral in quality of life.
We spoke to Dr Tim Henwood, Group Manager, Community Wellness and Lifestyle with Southern Cross Care (SA, NT & VIC), about how you can reduce the risk of having a fall at home.
Falls are more common than you might think.
Last year, over 22,000 South Australians were admitted to public hospitals as a result of a fall. That’s 13 times higher than the amount of hospital visits for motor vehicle injuries, yet most of us don’t talk half as much about falls prevention as we do about road safety. Falls can be just as deadly and dangerous for those aged over 65 years.
“We all know about the stories where an older adult falls over, breaks a hip and they’re no longer with us within 12 months,” says Dr Henwood.
“With the correct exercise program managed by an allied health professional, and awareness of the risk factors, there’s a good chance the fall could have been prevented and they could’ve improved their quality of life.” Dr Henwood advises.
Most people who are injured by a fall are over 65 years. That’s when our balance and strength can start to take a real dip, but Dr Henwood believes we should start thinking about prevention well before that point.
“It’s very easy to fall over. We should really be thinking about our muscle balance and strength as early as our 40s and 50s,” he says.
“It’s never too late to start however, but you don’t want to wait until you’ve had that first fall. Often, if someone falls once, they fall again and again.”
Here are some things you can do to help you stay on your feet and prevent a fall:
Exercise is the key to unlocking a host of health benefits later in life and falls prevention is no exception.
“I’ve just been part of a research study where we put resistance training into residential aged care and reduced falls rates by 55%,” says Dr Henwood.
“So, even if you’re 85 years of age or older, you can still become stronger, have better balance and enjoy higher levels of independence.” he adds.
It’s recommended that adults aged 65 years or older do at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days and the current consensus is for a combination of moderate aerobic, strength, balance and flexibility exercises.
Start at a level that’s easily manageable and gradually build up.
A great way to start is by writing down your goals and having someone like an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist tailor a program around those goals. Your goals can be as simple as being able to do more gardening or make it to the end of a round of golf.
Another idea is to get active by walking with a close friend or family member – chances are you’ll enjoy it so much you’ll want to do more!
De-clutter the house
Have a good look at what’s around your home, both indoors and out, because even the most innocuous item can become a dangerous obstacle. Start by removing or securing any loose rugs, cables or clutter in the house, and then check for any lifted pavers, steps or bulging tree roots outside. Be mindful of pets too. While a pet can be a great companion, and a dog a great friend to go for a walk with, they can also get underfoot when you least expect.
“As we age, we change our gait significantly. Some people aren’t even lifting their foot more than a centimetre off the ground, so those low-lying trip hazards can become quite significant.” Dr Henwood says.
Care should be taken when undertaking those home maintenance projects. Climbing ladders to clean gutters or change a light bulb can be can have significant risks for those with declining balance and strength.
Check in with your GP
Your doctor is a good starting point when it comes to falls prevention. They can refer you to the right specialists and get the ball rolling on a strategy to increase your strength and balance.
“The biggest thing is for people to start thinking ahead. Prevention is the unsung hero in this space,” says Dr Henwood.
Chronic health conditions can also be a contributing factor – conditions such as heart disease, dementia, diabetes and low blood pressure can cause dizziness and result in falls. Whilst there are some risk factors that are genetic, there are others that can be prevented. If you are concerned about any of these conditions, speak with your GP.
Get your balance and strength assessed
There are plenty of specialists who can assess your balance and then help you improve it over time. Again, an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist can recommend exercises to help keep you on your feet for longer, while an occupational therapist can give you great advice on future-proofing your home.
Visits to an exercise physiologist, physiotherapist or occupational therapist are included under selected Health Partners Extras cover. Click here to find a provider near you. Check your cover details 24/7 at Members Online – everything you need to know about your cover including waiting periods that apply.
Have your medications reviewed
Many older adults are prescribed a suite of medications, to address both health conditions, as well as the side effects caused by the medications themselves. Sometimes, treatments can be prescribed without being properly communicated with your GP or other specialist. This can lead to adverse effects that can contribute to your falls risk, like changes in balance, vision and depth perception.
“Everyone can have their medication pharmaceutically reviewed under Medicare, to make sure there are no contraindications. If you are concerned about falls and your medications, make sure to raise it with your pharmacist,” says Dr Henwood.
Ask your GP if you’d like to have your medication regimen reviewed.
Get your vision assessed
Staying on your feet is greatly dependent on your ability to see obstacles and perceive depth and height. Ensuring you have the right lenses for your needs will give you the best possible vision, and greatest chance of staying on your feet.
If you have recently got a new pair of glasses, such as those with multi-focal lenses, it is also important to adapt to these carefully. Always call your Health Partners Optical store if you are having problems with using your new glasses.
Diet and nutrition
Following a balanced diet rich in essential vitamins and minerals is also important when it comes to preventing falls. A healthy diet is key to maintaining strong bones, muscles and general wellbeing. Poor nutrition or dehydration can cause dizziness, syncope or fainting which may result in an unexpected fall.
It is also important to note that your nutritional requirements will change over time and as you age. Visit the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults for more information, or speak with your GP. A dietician or nutritionist may be able to assist you with personalised nutrition advice, available under eligible Extras cover.
Health Partners have a dedicated Balance and Falls Management program for eligible SA members, designed to mitigate the risks of falling and to improve confidence and balance in identified patients.