Falls are one of the biggest risk factors for losing an independent way of life and causing the deterioration of health in the elderly population. They can lead to broken bones, fractures, head injuries and hospital stays, which can all have a lasting impact on the over-65s.
Now, mounting research suggests that it is exercise that is the best way of preventing falls in this most at-risk demographic of society. As a result, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has included exercise in its guidelines for lessening the chances of falls and fractures in older adults.
Of course, this advice is worth noting, even for those who do not live in the US. Relatives of elderly people at risk of having a fall can help to encourage them to do a little more exercise. It’s important that the activity be tailored to the right level for the individual and there are a number of national bodies in the UK helping to do just that.
Dr Alex Krist, a professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and USPSTF vice chair, spoke to CBS News about how exercise can be offered to the elderly. He pointed towards evidence that it works well.
"[For] a 65-year-old who is having some concerns of falls but is also pretty active, a group exercise programme of tai chi at the community rec centre might work very well, whereas an older individual who might be more frail or not even be able to walk well on their own, something more like physical therapy, one on one, might be needed," Dr Krist added.
One study from Florida State University recently found that simple calf stretching was enough to help prevent falls. It discovered that an easy half-hour routine carried out five times a week helped to improve blood flow and could be achieved even by those who have problems walking.
Dr Judy Muller-Delp, of Florida State University College of Medicine, said: “This highlights even individuals who struggle to walk due to pain or lack of mobility can undertake activity to possibly improve their health.”
While vitamin D and calcium supplements have previously been hailed as good preventative strategies against fractures, the USPSTF no longer includes them in its recommendations. The task force has concluded that there is insufficient evidence that they prevent fractures when either taken together or individually.
The message, therefore, is that exercise is a much better way to protect against the debilitating consequences of falls in the elderly. According to NHS figures for the UK, around one in three adults over the age of 65 who live at home will fall at least once in a year and around half of them will fall more frequently.
Among the main causes of falls are balance problems and muscle weakness, which can be improved with exercise. Poor vision and long-term health conditions, including dementia, heart disease and low blood pressure are also potential contributors to the risk of a fall.