While cancer and heart disease are known for being lethal, deaths from these health issues have actually declined over time. Conversely, death rates from falls have increased, particularly among the elderly.

In contrast to falls from greater heights, ground-level falls — essentially falls from a standing position, with feet touching the ground prior to the fall — have traditionally been considered minor injuries. But, the new study found elderly adults — 70 years or older — who experience ground-level falls are much more likely to be severely injured and less likely to survive their injuries compared to adults younger than 70 years. Elderly patients are three times as likely to die following a ground-level fall compared to their under-70 counterparts.

Approximately 27,000 seniors succumb annually due to falls, but how can such a seemingly innocuous accident be life-threatening?

How Falls Increase the Risk of Death

As the population continues to age, it’s important for physicians and caregivers to be aware of and prepared to deal with this issue, which could significantly impact the health and well-being of older adults.

Depending on how a senior lands when they fall, they could experience anything from a broken hip to a traumatic brain injury. Fractured bones and soft tissue injuries are the most common injuries. Unfortunately for seniors, even minor trauma can require hospitalization, and many never regain the level of functionality and confidence they enjoyed before the incident.

The negative effect of age on health outcomes has been well established in past studies in other areas as well. Many elderly adults are frail and have pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart disease. In these types of patients, a low-level fall that results in a broken hip could have serious, far-reaching consequences says trauma surgeon and researcher Julius Cheng, M.D., M.P.H Cheng. “An 80 year old often can’t tolerate and recover from trauma like a 20 year old.”

Advanced age, frailty and pre-existing medical conditions mean that older individuals are less likely to recover from their injuries. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Mississippi found that seniors older than 70 experienced a three-fold increase in their risk of death after a fall when compared with those 69 and younger. According to the CDC, trauma to the brain was the cause of death in 41% of fall fatalities among seniors in 2010. However, even with a less serious injury, like a broken bone, the course of treatment and prognosis are still complicated. Hip fractures often require surgical procedures involving sedation and further trauma—two things that can jeopardize an older person’s life.

Even if a senior survives the fall and subsequent medical care, a longer recovery time translates to a longer hospital stay. This leaves the elderly more vulnerable to hospital-acquired infections, such as pneumonia, sepsis, C. diff, and catheter-associated urinary tract infections. Matters can be complicated further if an infection is resistant to commonly used antibiotic drugs.

Non-Fatal Falls Have Long-Term Effects

Complications from a fall can ultimately render a senior incapable of caring for themselves. Only 22% of seniors in the University of Mississippi study could handle living on their own after being released from the hospital following a fall. After such a traumatic and painful incident, many older individuals reduce their activity levels due to a fear of falling again. This reaction is understandable, but can lead to increased frailty and risk of a repeat fall. Changes in mental state, such as depression, delirium, or even dementia can develop as well.

Prevention Is Key

The best methods for preventing falls in the elderly involve addressing and minimizing hazards before they can pose a threat to an aging loved one’s health. Not every accident can be avoided, but taking certain precautions can extend a senior’s independence and greatly reduce their risk of injury and death.

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