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A few years ago, the death of Fox News CEO, Roger Ailes, reminded me how tragic a fall can be, especially in the elderly. Mr. Ailes was on TV periodically and it was evident that he had mobility problems. He was overweight and used a cane. He did not have a stable gait. He died from a subdural hematoma (blood clot that puts pressure on the brain) after a fall where he struck his head. Sometimes we can pick ourselves up and go on after a fall. But then there is the other extreme, as in Mr. Ailes’ case. A blood clot on the brain is a less common event, but it happens. Important to know, since falls cause thousands of injuries and hospitalizations each year.
The older we get the more susceptible we are to falls and their unfortunate consequences. Our muscles get weaker and our balance falters. With osteoporosis comes fragile bones. A fractured hip is the most common result of a fall. Even after surgical repair many people never walk again. When a person is not able to walk, the risk for other problems, namely, blood clots and pneumonia, increase. Your health can quickly spiral downward after a fall. Some people who fall are so afraid of falling again that they limit their activities, even if they have no injury. This leads to more weakness and a higher risk of falls.
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If you have ever taken one of the Humana Medicare physicals then you know why falls are important. You are asked about a history of falling. Any falls within the past few months is important to know. It means it can easily happen again. You also do the “Get Up and Go” test where you are timed from the point of sitting to the point of standing and taking a step forward. There are variations on this test. The patient may be asked to walk a few steps then back to the chair. The test is measured in seconds depending on the distance you are told to walk. The purpose of this test is to identify those who are at risk so that interventions can be started to prevent falls. Your primary provider can do this test in the office even if you are not a Humana patient.
Strengthening weak muscles and balance training are the primary treatment measures for fall prevention. A physical therapist is the expert in these matters. The therapist can show you exercises you can do at home or at a gym if you prefer. Daily walking helps. Use hiking poles for added stability when walking. Tai Chi promotes balance and strengthening. If you keep your fitness level up you are less likely to fall. If you do fall, you are more likely to get on your feet again, even if you do require surgery.
Older individuals who have had near miss falls or who are developing weakness are encouraged to see a physical therapist for strength and balance evaluation. Talk to your health care provider if you want but you do not have to see that person first. Depending on your insurance, you may have a co-pay. It is definitely worth if it helps keep you from falling.
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