Falls occur at any age but they are particularly common in people over sixty. As an orthopedic surgeon it is not uncommon for me to see elderly patients who have fractures due to accidental falls. One of my elderly patients was adamant that she was doing all she could to prevent bone loss by drinking plenty of milk on a daily basis. She seemed surprised to hear that although milk may be a good source of calcium, it is not the answer to giving your bones the support they need as you age.
The statistics are alarming when it comes to falls and fractures. According to the National Institute of Health one in every two women will suffer a fracture related to osteoporosis, a term used to describe bone loss. Unfortunately, many people live with osteoporosis without knowing it because there are no symptoms until a bone becomes so fragile that it is easily broken.
There are several interesting facts related to fractures worth mentioning:
• More than 90 percent of hip fractures are associated with osteoporosis.
• Nine out of 10 hip fractures in older Americans are the result of a fall.
• Elderly individuals who have a hip fracture are 5 to 20 percent more likely to die in the first year following that injury than others in this age group.
• For those living independently before a hip fracture, 15 to 25 percent will still be in long-term care institutions a year after their fracture.
• Most falls happen to women in their homes in the afternoon.
Why Falls Happen
A question I am often asked is why falls are more likely to happen as you age. There are many reasons of course. But some of the most common causes are directly linked to a person’s reflexes which slow down in older people. Reaction time becomes delayed making it harder to regain balance when something suddenly causes a shift of body weight. Also, loss of footing or traction is very common especially in wet or icy conditions. Other examples include tripping, or climbing on items intended for other purposes like using a chair to reach a high shelf.
Balance can be improved by doing muscle-strengthening exercises, and practicing them on a daily basis. Let’s not forget to make sure your vision is the best it can be. Get your eyes tested to obtain maximum vision correction, and make sure you are comfortable wearing bifocal or trifocal glasses. Poor vision can increase your risk of falling especially over uneven surfaces such as curbs, uneven floor elevations or sidewalks.
Another very important factor contributing to fractures is the fact that people lose body fat that could cushion bony areas. Loss of muscle strength which is also common adds to the risk of breaking a bone if a fall occurs.
Strengthen Your Bones
The first step is to ensure that you have strong bones that will support you and withstand minor falls. Begin strengthening your bones early in life in order to avoid bone loss as you age.
Although calcium is essential for bone strength, dairy products aren’t always the best source. In order for your bones to benefit from this important mineral, it must be able to absorb it. The pasteurization of dairy products destroys not only harmful bacteria but it also kills important enzymes which your body needs in order to absorb calcium. So, you may be ingesting lots of calcium which is never absorbed by your body.
Instead of milk and other dairy products, focus on other calcium sources such as sardines, calcium-fortified fruit juice, spinach and other leafy greens, broccoli and almonds. To insure you’re getting your recommended amount of calcium for your age, you may need to take a supplement.
Even if you’re getting plenty of calcium, you’re still not necessarily strengthening your bones. For best calcium absorption, your body also needs magnesium, manganese, and vitamin D. Pineapple is a good source of manganese and 15-20 minutes of sun exposure per day is great for vitamin D.
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Even if you’re doing everything possible to maintain bone strength, precautions are always a good idea to prevent falls.
• At home – Clear walk-through areas of all electrical cords and other items. Maintain good lighting, especially in stairways. Install extra stair rails, if necessary. Use night lights. Install handrails and non-skid mats in the shower. Clean up kitchen spills immediately. Make sure throw rugs have rubber backings, or place rubber mats underneath.
• Outside – Wear rubber-soled shoes, especially if you live in an area with icy winter conditions. Carry a cane or other device to help you keep your balance.
• Stay Fit – Keeping your body in its best physical condition will ensure a minimum of falls. Regular exercise will increase your balance and coordination and help keep your body flexible. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or lifting light weights, will also build your bones.
• Medication – Avoid substances that can interfere with your balance. Many drugs and medications may cause you to feel light-headed, dizzy or drowsy and make you susceptible to falling. If you experience any dizziness at all, have your doctor investigate the cause and help you eliminate it.
Your bones support you so don’t disappoint them. Start now to keep your skeleton and muscular structure strong. Avoid fractures later in life by following a few lifestyle changes that will make a difference later on. You’ll be glad you did!