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You Can Keep Yourself From Falling

As you age, you may face a higher risk of falling. That doesn't mean you're going to fall. In fact, you can do a lot to keep yourself from falling.

The best way to reduce your risk is to improve your overall level of fitness and flexibility, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Be sure to check with your doctor before you begin or alter an exercise program.

Why people fall

Age causes changes to your body that can increase your risk of falls.

"As you get older, your brain's ability to process information slows down," says Lanyard Dial, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles. That includes information from your joints and muscles. "So it takes longer for your brain to recognize when there might be a problem." That means you have less time to react when a problem comes along. At the same time, he says, changes in joints and muscles make limbs stiffer, so it's harder to react to signals from your brain. That's when strength and a good sense of balance can protect you.

Conditions such as diabetes or heart disease can damage nerves and make it harder for the brain to get the information it needs. And some medications, especially in combination, can make you dizzy, light-headed or even confused. Those medicines include sedatives, pain medicines and some blood pressure drugs.

"Your doctor needs to know all the medications you take," Dr. Dial says. That includes over-the-counter medicines, herbal remedies and supplements. The doctor can tell you what medicines you can or can't take together.

Another risk factor: "Changes in the eye mean you need more light than you did when you were younger," Dr. Dial says. If you use the same lights you always have, it's harder to see obstacles or notice clutter that can make you fall. "Adding lights, being sure they work and using brighter bulbs can all help reduce your risk," he says. "So can wearing the proper glasses."

Your living environment also can create trouble. Loose or uneven carpeting can cause you to trip and fall. So can power cords on the floor, small pets, furniture in high traffic areas and poorly lit stairs without firm handrails.

Getting rid of risks

It isn't hard to make your home safe. Here are tips from Dr. Dial:

  • Keep your home well lit. Make sure light switches are easy to get to. Keep a nightlight on or turn on a light before you get out of bed if it is dark when you get up.

  • Get rid of uneven or slippery surfaces and clutter, such as throw rugs or power cords where you often walk.

  • Keep small pets out of the way.

  • Leave clear paths between rooms. You shouldn't have to walk around furniture to get from one place to another.

  • Repair or discard broken furniture. "If you try to grab hold of a broken chair to keep from falling, it won't protect you," Dr Dial says.

  • In the bathroom, have secure grab rails put in by the toilet and next to and inside the shower or tub. Put down sticky surfaces in the shower or tub floor. Use non-slip rugs on the floor. This doesn't have to cost a lot, Dr. Dial says. You can buy things cheaply at discount home improvement stores. Check with local handymen to see if they have a discount for seniors. Some churches have programs to help seniors install safety devices.

  • Wear shoes or slippers with non-slip soles.

  • Fix broken steps and install handrails firmly on both sides.

  • Wear glasses if you need them.

Other tips from the NIA include:

  • Limit how much alcohol you drink. Even a small amount can affect your balance and reflexes.

  • Maintain a comfortable temperature in your home. A home that's too cold or too hot can make you dizzy. Keep cool in the summer with air conditioning or electric fans; drink plenty of liquids. In the winter, keep the nighttime temperature in your home at 65 degrees or warmer.

  • Use a cane, walking stick or walker to help you feel steadier when you walk. Be careful when walking on wet or icy surfaces. If possible, spread sand or salt on icy areas.

  • Make sure your sofas and chairs are a good height for you, so that you can get into and out of them easily.

If you exercise and take steps to make your environment safe, succumbing to falls is not something you need fear. In fact, the steps you take to stay safe by improving your fitness will pay added dividends by improving your overall health.

Are you at risk for a fall?

How do you know if you're at risk for a fall? The warning signs include any of the following, say Dr. Dial and other experts:

  • Having diseases, especially more than one

  • Taking a combination of medicines, especially four or more

  • Feeling weaker or dizzier than you have in the past and tripping more often without actually falling

  • Being unable to catch yourself as you once did when you slip or stumble

  • Being unable to rise from a chair without using your arms for support