How serious is the problem?
Ninety percent of the more than 352,000 hip fractures in the U.S. each year are the result of a fall. The remaining 10 percent of the hip fractures occur spontaneously due to low bone density or osteoporosis. Spontaneous fractures can then precipitate the fall. Women have two to three times as many hip fractures as men, and white post menopausal women have a 1 in 7 chance of a hip fracture during their lifetime. The hip fracture rate increases at age 50, doubling every five to six years. More than one-third of adults ages 65 years and older fall each year (Hornbrook 1994; Hausdorff 2001). Nearly one half of the women who reach 90 will have suffered a hip fracture.
Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths (Murphy 2000) and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma (Alexander 1992). In 2003 more than 1.8 million seniors age 65 and older were treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries and more than 421,000 were hospitalized (CDC 2005).
What outcomes are linked to falls?
In 2002, nearly 13,000 people ages 65 and older died from fall-related injuries (CDC 2004). More than 60% of people who die from falls are 75 and older (Murphy 2000). Of those who fall, 20% to 30% suffer moderate to severe injuries such as hip fractures or head traumas that reduce mobility and independence, and increase the risk of premature death (Sterling 2001). Only 25 percent of hip fracture patients will make a full recovery; 40 percent will require nursing home care; 50 percent will need a cane or walker; and 24 percent of those over the age of 50 will die within 12 months.
Falls are a leading cause of traumatic brain injuries (Jager 2000). Among older adults, the majority of fractures are caused by falls (Bell 2000). Approximately 3% to 5% of older adult falls cause fractures (Cooper 1992; Wilkins 1999). Based on the 2000 census, this translates to 360,000 to 480,000 fall-related fractures each year. The most common fractures are of the vertebrae, hip, forearm, leg, ankle, pelvis, upper arm, and hand (Scott 1990).
How can seniors reduce their risk of falling?
Through careful scientific studies, researchers have identified a number of modifiable risk factors:
Seniors can modify these risk factors by:
Increasing lower body strength and improving balance through regular physical activity can help to reduce the incidence of falls (Judge 1993; Lord 1993; Campbell 1999). Seniors who are mobile and walk regularly can keep their joints and muscles limber, which reduce their risk of falling. People who are sedentary and allow their muscles to atrophy are highly at risk of falling.
Proper nutrition can also help reduce the risk of falling. Seniors who are undernourished are often unsteady on their feet and can even feel dizzy when they stand up. Inadequate nutrition can also lead to a number of other health failures and diseases that further destabilizes the body. Proper diet and exercise can significantly improve strength and endurance, which mitigates fall risk.
Asking their doctor or pharmacist to review all their medicines (both prescription and over-the-counter) to reduce side effects and interactions can also help. It may be possible to reduce the number of medications used, particularly tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety drugs (Ray 1990). Medicines effect gait and balance for most adults. Limiting the number of different medicines that one is taking can help to stabilize and reduce fall risk.
Studies have shown that some other important fall risk factors are Parkinson's Disease, history of stroke, arthritis (Dolinis 1997), dementia and cognitive impairment (Tromp 2001), and visual impairments (Dolinis 1997; Ivers 1998; Lord 2001). To reduce these risks, seniors should see a health care provider regularly for chronic conditions and have an eye doctor check their vision at least once a year. Seniors with dementia tend to be less careful ambulating than their non-demented counterparts who are constantly aware of and fear the consequences of a fall.
Randomized trials have demonstrated that calcium supplementation and estrogen are effective in preserving bone density in postmenopausal women. In a randomized trial in healthy postmenopausal women, calcium supplementation slowed bone loss and significantly reduced symptomatic fractures. Numerous observational and nonrandomized experimental studies suggest that risk of fracture can be reduced 25-50% by estrogen replacement therapy as well (Chaupy 1994). All women should also receive counseling regarding universal preventive measures related to fracture risk, such as dietary calcium and vitamin D intake, weight-bearing exercise, and smoking cessation from their physician.
What other things may help reduce fall risk?
Because seniors spend most of their time at home, one-half to two-thirds of all falls occur in or around the home (Wilkins 1999). Most fall injuries are caused by falls on the same level (not from falling down stairs) and from a standing height (for example, by tripping while walking) (Ellis 2001). Therefore, it makes sense to reduce home hazards and make living areas safer. Researchers have found that simply modifying the home does not reduce falls. Common environmental fall hazards include tripping hazards, lack of stair railings or grab bars, slippery surfaces, unstable furniture, and poor lighting (Northridge 1995; Connell 1996; Gill 1999).
To make living areas safer, seniors should:
The doctor will x-ray the hip to determine exactly where the bone is broken and how far out of place the pieces have moved. Most hip fractures are one of two types: Femoral neck fractures are 1-2 inches from the joint or; Intertrochanteric fractures are 3-4 inches from the joint. Modern treatment for hip fractures aims to get you back on your feet again as soon as possible. The doctor will reposition the fracture and hold it in place with an internal device. Femoral neck fractures are usually stabilized with surgical screws or pins. These are used if you are younger, or if your broken bone has not moved much out of place. If you are older and less active, you may need a high strength metal device that fits into your hip socket, replacing the head of your femur (hemiarthroplasty). For Intertrochanteric fractures a metallic device (compression screw and side plate) holds the broken bone in place while it allows the head of the femur to move normally in the hip socket.
Recovery depends largely on the extent of the injury and the overall health and fitness of the patient. Some patients respond readily to physical therapy and rehabilitation, especially those with positive attitudes and cognitive awareness. Others who are less cooperative are more at risk for a prolonged recovery, or further decline. Ample research has demonstrated the mind's ability to influence our health and recovery. People who suffer a hip fracture often experience a sense of helplessness and despair, which can lead to depression. Helping victims through their rehabilitation and recovery through positive reinforcement can often dramatically influence the results. Returning them to their home and familiar routine promptly will also enable them to focus on healing allowing them to feel more in control of their future rather than fearing what may be to come which is beyond their control.