We Can’t Afford to Fall Down on Falls

Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:50am

Every 18 seconds. That’s how often a shaken older adult goes to the emergency room, often in pain, after a fall. The explanations can sound mundane — slipping on a loose rug, getting dizzy rising from a chair, tripping over the cat. But one out of three older adults in America falls every year and for many the experience is life-changing, causing hip fracture, traumatic brain injury, or early nursing home admission. In 2005, falls killed nearly 16,000 older adults. [IMGCAP(1)]In addition to the human cost, fall-related injuries also cause $19 billion a year in direct health care costs, projected to rise to $54.9 billion by 2020. Fortunately, falls are not an inevitable consequence of aging. Simple evidence-based strategies can help reduce the growing number of fall-related injuries. Exercising to increase strength, flexibility and balance, an annual eye exam, removing household hazards like throw rugs, installing grab bars in bathrooms, and having a doctor or pharmacist check their prescriptions for medications that affect balance can all help to greatly reduce older adults’ risk of falling.We want to help older adults stay on their feet. Since 2005, the Falls Free Coalition, a group of 23 state and 68 national organizations, has promoted public awareness, disseminated evidence-based fall-prevention programs in communities, and supported legislation. This includes the Safety of Seniors Act, now P.L. 110-202, which was signed into law in 2008 but never funded. Despite a small 2009 increase in falls funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls-related injuries remain a $19 billion health care issue for which the CDC receives just $2 million a year. Losing older adults to avoidable falls wastes a valuable resource. Beyond their gifts of wisdom and experience, older adults who are healthy and independent contribute enormously to our society. More than 2 million grandparents are heads of household for families with more than 4.5 million children, according to the Administration on Aging. Older adults form a rich volunteer network and provide billions of dollars of care-giving support for aging spouses and other family members. Sept. 22 is National Falls Prevention Awareness Day. But awareness alone is not enough. We need to fund the Safety for Seniors Act so we can train health care providers to cost-effectively manage their patients’ risk of falling. We need more evidence-based interventions and programs in communities throughout the country. We need to make fall-prevention services reimbursable. And fall-prevention screening needs to be a covered Medicare benefit. Research shows that every dollar invested in fall-prevention programs yields $2.50 in return on investment, according to the CDC.In the minute it’s taken you to read this, three more older adults have been hurt in a fall, perhaps permanently altering their lives and the lives of their families. It’s time for us to stand up to falls. Lynn Beattie is vice president for injury prevention at the National Council on Aging and chairwoman of the national Falls Free Coalition.