As we grow older, we are at higher risk of falling. Millions of seniors are hospitalized each year as a result of falling, often suffering a hip fracture, head injury or other serious injury. In fact, falls are a leading cause of accidental death among older adults. Many seniors and family caregivers take steps to reduce the risk of falling. But they may be unaware that common infections may be the true underlying cause for some of these falls.
At the recent annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital reported that urinary, respiratory and bloodstream infections can cause low blood pressure, dizziness and confusion that make it more likely that a senior will fall.
Said researcher Dr. Farrin A. Manian, “Over the years I’ve been struck by the fact that some of the more serious infections I treated were in people who came to the hospital because they fell.” Dr. Manian says that these patients often had no other noticeable symptoms of the infection, such as fever or abnormal white blood cell count. The fall itself was the first sign that something was amiss. Reports Dr. Manian, “Even though many of the patients had vague early signs of an infection, such as weakness or lethargy, it was the fall that brought them in.”
Dr. Manian suggests that family caregivers and healthcare providers should consider infection as a possible cause of any falls a senior experiences, and seek a diagnosis.
Not all falls are the result of infection, of course. Here is a quick overview of some of the other fall factors—and what seniors and families can do to reduce the risk:
Environmental causes—Throw rugs, electrical cords, wet and slippery floors, rough floor surfaces, slick walkways and steps, and poor lighting are all examples of things or conditions that can trip us up. Inspect your home for things that could trip you up, and remove hazards. While you’re at it, add safety improvements such as grab bars in the bath or shower, a second handrail on stairs, and improved lighting throughout the house.
Physical and mental changes—Most seniors, sooner or later, will experience problems with their eyesight, sense of balance, mobility, bone structure, and reflexes. Confusion, forgetfulness, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease are also important risk factors. Ask the doctor about a fall prevention exercise class. Keep your eyeglass prescription up to date. If you’re experiencing dizziness or balance problems, get that checked out. If the doctor recommends additional testing, take their advice.
Medications—Most seniors take a variety of medications, both over-the-counter and prescription. These medications help us manage health conditions that raise the risk of falls—yet, ironically, many medications can cause dizziness, drowsiness, or other side effects that make it harder to keep one’s balance. At your next appointment, ask your doctor to review all your medications, and report any side effects that you’re experiencing.
Things we don’t expect—Often, a contributing cause in a fall is the circumstance we do not expect and have not prepared for. We lean against a door, thinking it is closed. We walk down a poorly lighted walkway, not prepared for the small pile of weeds and clippings someone has left there. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t be tripped up by something you didn’t anticipate. Plan your motions a little more ahead than you used to. Give yourself time to react to your physical surroundings and the other people around you. Pay special attention any time you are in new or unfamiliar surroundings. Don’t let the fear of falling cause you to be less active—but be alert.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise, with information from the Infectious Diseases Society of America