Falls can threaten seniors’ health and ability to live independently, but UTHCT’s Center for Healthy Aging can help

Monday, September 18, 2006

As people live longer than past generations, “aging well” – maintaining your physical and mental well-being – becomes of prime importance.

A major threat to aging well is injuries caused by falls. Falls are common among people older than 65, with 30 percent of elderly individuals who live in the community falling each year and 50 percent of nursing home patients falling annually, said Kent Davis, MD, medical director of the Center for Healthy Aging at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

“Of the elderly who fall, 30 percent suffer mild to moderate soft-tissue injury, while another 20 percent require urgent medical attention. And 5 percent of the elderly end up with fractures. Almost half – 42 percent – experience reduced activity after falls,” said Dr. Davis, who is board certified in internal medicine with an added qualification in geriatric medicine.

Fractures of the hip, spine, or forearm are the most common fall-related injuries, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Hip fractures are the most serious and lead to the greatest number of health problems and deaths.

“Falls are the fifth-leading cause of death in older adults. The number of deaths caused by falls increases 10 times between the ages of 65 and 85. The cost of falls in the United States is more than $20 billion annually,” Dr. Davis said.

Falls can be caused by environmental factors such as poor lighting, slippery floors, loose rugs and electrical cords, stairs, and poor-fitting shoes, he said. Alterations in gait and balance caused by vision problems, hearing loss, arthritis, stroke, and Parkinson’s Disease also can cause elderly people to fall. Medications such as sedatives, blood pressure pills, and diuretics are risk factors, as is excessive alcohol use.

“Although falls are the result of multiple causes, they are preventable. Seniors can be screened periodically, and they can be evaluated for risk factors if they fall,” Dr. Davis said.

“Environmental hazards such as loose rugs can be reduced or eliminated. Medications can be evaluated to make sure they are necessary and their dosages adjusted. Seniors can engage in strength training and regular exercise regimens such as tai chi to improve their balance. Conditions such as osteoporosis or arthritis can be treated,” he said.

Being seen by medical professionals such as geriatricians – physicians trained to care for seniors and who are familiar with the physical and mental effects of aging – can help you avoid falls and significantly improve your health and quality of life.

These professionals with advanced training in caring for older adults can be found at UTHSCT’s Center for Healthy Aging. This team of specialized physicians and nurse practitioners comprehensively assess seniors’ physical and psychological needs.

“At UTHSCT, 55 percent of all inpatients are over age 65. And UTHSCT medical professionals participate in more than 70,000 patient encounters with seniors each year. Our medical professionals have extensive experience in listening to seniors, in caring for them, and in providing support to their families,” Dr. Davis said.

The Center for Healthy Aging sponsors senior educational conferences, health fairs, and a support group for caregivers of elderly family members, he said. The Center dates to 2003, when the Texas Legislature designated UTHSCT as the East Texas Center for Rural Geriatric Studies, now called the Center for Healthy Aging. The Center’s purpose is to improve the quality of life for aging Americans in rural and non-metropolitan areas through research, public health and outreach, education, public policy and advocacy, and clinical services.

Planned initiatives of the Center for Healthy Aging include:

  • An Aging Research and Treatment unit, or ART unit, to provide specialized care to elderly East Texans;
  • A Geriatric Fellowship Program, to offer physicians advanced training in geriatrics; and
  • Continuing biomedical and clinical research into diseases that affect the aging process.

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