Traditionally, when a resident of Sherman Oaks or elsewhere falls, their health provider looks at possible physical causes first, such as balance or strength issues. They may recommend physical solutions as well, such as therapy, improved safety features, more exercise, or even in-home care.
The team at Accredited Home Care is very familiar with falls and the impact they can have on seniors and their families. We also try to follow ongoing research into falls, since they can be a fairly common problem for our clients as they age.
One new study in particular is encouraging medical professionals to look at the reasons behind falls in different ways. While physical factors could still be very possible, a study published in Science Daily shows that there could also be mental reasons, specifically, forms of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease that may affect the portions of the brain that controls mobility and balance.
The study from Washington University School of Medicine looked at whether the gradual deterioration of the brain due to conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease could lead to falls.
Though more research is recommended into this line of discussion, the initial study showed that dementia could be a factor and may even be taking place earlier than some people realize.
During the study, the health and activities of about 80 participants age 65 or over were tracked over a 12-month period. Each one had been diagnosed as “cognitively normal” in order to be accepted into the study.
Each month, participants were asked to fill out a form about their physical health and whether they had any falls, serious or not. They also received regular brain scans that looked for certain proteins that would indicate the signs of advancing Alzheimer’s disease. This includes cells that are becoming atrophied or more amyloid proteins.
After the year of observation ended, researchers came together to look at the data. They discovered that there was some degree of connection between falling and dementia. The study indicated that any decay or damage made it more possible for falling to happen. This period of physical decline of the brain is often seen prior to the more visible signs of Alzheimer’s disease, such as noticeable memory loss or visible confusion.
This phase of Alzheimer’s may also be happening much earlier to people than many realize. Although some of the “warning signs” are commonly noticed when someone in their 60s or 70s, research is showing that some of the mental deterioration may begin at a minor level in their 40s or 50s. But since it’s difficult to know what to look for this early, it is rarely diagnosed.
This fall study and future research in this direction could encourage providers to say “let’s consider the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease” much earlier and perhaps starting treatment or preventive efforts before permanent brain damage occurs.
If you’d like to learn more about falling or other current Alzheimer’s disease research, November is a great time. It’s National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, an annual commemoration that has taken place since 1983.
Future research that explores these connections may also recommend additional safety steps in the home, everything from teaching people better skills to reduce falls to make their homes safer places.
Whatever is happening mentally, it’s a good idea to find ways to build strength and improve balance and flexibility. This includes exercising on a regular basis – many health practitioners recommend at least 20 minutes a day at least five days a week.
Opportunities for physical therapy can also help especially if mobility has been reduced due to health conditions. You can learn how to use or re-use muscles that may not be working as well as they used to.
Occupational therapy can also assist with teaching people skills to get around their home, such as how to walk safely with a cane or walker. It can also include an evaluation of their home to look for possible falling hazards such as area rugs that cause someone to trip or areas in the bathroom that can be slippery. There are some easy ways to improve safety, such as more railings or adding more lights, or changing lightbulbs which can reduce dark areas.
Part of the education includes learning more about the risks of falls.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that more than 3 million older people receive treatment each year in emergency rooms due to fall-related injuries. Falls also lead to hospitalization for 800,000 people because of serious injuries, usually in the hip, head, or neck, and death for as many as 30,000 people a year.
Fall research shows that 1 in 4 people who are age 65 or over fall at least once a year, but only half tell a doctor about it.
Data about falls shows that once a fall occurs, it significantly increases the odds of another fall happening, due to a combination of physical weaknesses and reduced mental confidence. Whether serious or minor, falls can be disruptive and make people not want to increase their risk, sometimes making them stay indoors or not want to exercise.
Unfortunately, this attitude can sometimes lead to anxiety, depression, or limiting social interactions, so families and caregivers need to be aware.