After the death of legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen earlier this month (November 7th), the issue of falls in the elderly has been brought to the fore. The 82-year-old fell in the night and later passed away in his sleep and it is not known if the two incidents are related. Falls, however, can highlight health problems in the elderly.
According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), there are a number of health conditions that can increase the risk of falling. It is often the case that it is multiple underlying factors that lead to a fall, many of which can be serious in their own right.
Dr Tanya Gure, a specialist in geriatric medicine at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told LiveScience: "There's usually not just one thing that’s causing the problem. [Falls] are often a sign of a medical condition, or several things that may have run amok."
In an ageing population, falls are becoming more prevalent and are the leading cause of accidental deaths in the elderly. While many people do not consider them to be serious, they are certainly worth paying attention to and considering what underlying causes may have led to the fall.
The NIH has produced a list of conditions that can increase the risk of falls. They include:
· Weakness in muscles, especially those of the lower body.
· Problems with balance, which could be caused by not exercising enough, arthritis or neurological conditions.
· Postural hypotension or the dropping of blood pressure when standing up, which is often linked to Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and infections. It can also be a side effect of some medication.
· Numbness in the feet and other sensory problems can make people unaware of where they are stepping.
· Cataracts, glaucoma and poor depth perception are just some of the common vision problems that can lead to falls. An inability to adjust between dark and light environments quickly is another.
Assessing a person who has had a fall is an important step, as it could bring unnoticed medical conditions to light or lead to the medication they are on being re-evaluated. People should let their doctors know even if the fall has not led them to being hospitalised. If an elderly person is in a care home, then the staff will be able to ensure that a medical opinion is sought.
Dr Gure said: "There's definitely an issue with older adults minimising [falls] and not wanting to draw attention to that issue. Anytime that that’s happening, that's something that’s worth bringing to the attention of health care provider. There are so many different levels that we can work to prevent falls."