On a beautiful winter morning, my dog and I started down the sidewalk for a brisk walk. Suddenly I caught my shoe on a ridge in the sidewalk, fell forward, and fell hard! I braced every muscle in my body to try to stop my fall and used the palms of my hands to keep my face off the ground. I eased myself up, gathered up the dog leash, and thanked my lucky stars. This could have been a bad fall, and it wasn’t. But all across America seniors are falling and some of the falls are very bad indeed.
Senior falls are more common than you think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of three adults 65 and older, falls every year. For senior citizens falls are the number one cause of injury, even death. Falls are also the leading cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.
Falls cause lacerations, head traumas, and hip fractures, and are the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries. Fractures to the arm, leg, ankle, hip, pelvis, spine, and hand are common. In 2006, a federal agency reported that one in seven women and one in ten men had an emergency department visit for a fall. Fractures were incurred by 41 %, contusions by 22 % and open wounds, 21%! Hip fractures added up to about 1 in 8 injuries. Seniors seen for severe falls were 65% more likely to need hospitalization than those with other conditions. The cost of hospital care for injurious falls among the elderly totaled 6.8 billion dollars in 2006. Scared yet?
As the old adage goes, "Prevention is better than cure."
Clearly, seniors need to get moving and get stronger. Lack of physical activity can lead to poor muscle tone, loss of bone mass and flexibility, and overall decreased strength, all of which can increase the severity of fall-caused injury. But going to the gym is like wearing sneakers to an award presentation. It just isn’t done enough.
Setting up a program for getting started is not difficult, however, once you put on the sneakers and make up your mind to get up and out. You will want to check movement and medications with your doctor first. Any medical or physical constraints should be listed and taken with you to the gym or exercise location that you have decided to try. You and your program trainers will want to be on the same page. In our area, the Central Bucks Y is an excellent place to start. You can register on-line at www.cbfymca.org. (215-348-8131) Membership for seniors and their families is reasonable. Membership gets you a free fitness evaluation that will help establish goals for you and recommend how to start. The “Older Adults Strength and Balance Training” course (Cathy Manning) is a once a week program with one or more professional trainers who guide you through every step and introduce more elements as soon as you are ready.
The CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/olderadults.html) recommends a combination of moderate intensity aerobic activity (walking or swimming) and muscle strengthening activities for a total of 2 hours and 50 minutes a week. All can be accomplished at the Y under safe and friendly conditions. I spent the first few sessions of my program with Cathy’s hand on my back. “Nobody falls on my watch!” She says. In addition to the strength and balance activities, everybody participates in a “cardio” warm-up with at least 15 minutes on the recumbent bike, a treadmill, or a rowing machine. When you feel confident, you can continue a program on your own, until the almost three hours a week CDC recommendation is met.
But muscle strength and improved balance is not the whole story. There is a remarkable benefit from socializing with other folks who are sharing the experience and sharing the Y. It’s a friendly place. You can have coffee afterwards with new acquaintances and brag about your grandchildren.
Finally, and perhaps most important, exercise helps keep your brain working, too. A study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine (NYT “How Exercise can Keep the Brain Fit”, July 27, 2011) found that systematic moderate exercise improved cognitive function, while the wholly sedentary participants showed increasing cognitive decline year after year. 90% of those with the greatest daily energy expenditure could think and remember just as well, year after year. According to Jae Kang, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, “If a sedentary senior is heading toward dementia at 50 miles per hour, by the time she is 75 or 76, she is speeding there at 75 miles an hour!”
That’s enough for me. I fell, but I didn’t get hurt. Improved exercise behavior has helped me lose weight, keep fluid out of my ankles, walk more confidently, sleep better, and think more clearly! Call the Central Bucks Family YMCA and talk to somebody. Your body, your friends, and your brain will be so glad you did.
Ann Melby Shenkle