Exercise, not 'guardian angels' key to avoiding falls

Pope Benedict XVI wound up a two-week vacation at a mountain resort in Northern Italy on Wednesday, July 29, 2009, by telling reporters that his "guardian angel" let him down when he fell and broke his wrist earlier in the month. He said the angel was clearly acting "on superior orders."

No details about the fall were released – except that it was accidental and that it happened inside the chalet where he was staying. It was the first significant health issue in Benedict's papacy.

(Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

Among people over the age of 65, falls are the leading cause of deaths by injuries. Older people face a higher risk of falling as they tend to have more problems with eyesight, movement and balance.

"Perhaps the Lord wanted to teach me more patience and humility, give me more time for prayer and meditation," the 82-year-old pope added as he left the chalet.

If you're over 65, your chance of falling at home is 30 per cent higher than the general population. If you're over 80, that risk rises to 50 per cent.

But household hazards aren't necessarily to blame. A study published nine years ago found that slippery showers, loose throw rugs, obstructed pathways and other household hazards are not the leading cause of falls by the elderly living at home. The researchers found there was little evidence to support a link between household hazards and falls.

The authors suggested that if there's a set amount of money to spend to make things safer for seniors, targeting home safety assessments may not be the best choice. Instead, they said, the money should be geared toward areas that are effective in preventing falls in the elderly: increasing muscle strength, improving gait and balance, corrective footwear and monitoring of medications.

Other studies have backed that up. Earlier this year, a study out of New Zealand found that exercise programs may help prevent falls among the elderly.

Last year, researchers in New Hampshire reported that maintaining muscle power may be the best strategy for preventing falls. The researchers found that while both young and older women were able to build muscle power during exercise, older women recorded only modest gains. The researchers said their findings suggest starting exercise early in life and maintaining it as long as you can is your best chance of having the muscle strength you'll need to minimize your risk of falls as you age.

Patience and humility might help the Pope avoid future accidents. But he might be better off focusing on:

  • Getting more exercise, particularly programs that work on balance and strength.
  • Having his medication checked to make sure none of the drugs is increasing his risk of falling.
  • Having his eyesight checked: cataracts and other vision problems can increase your risk of falling.
  • Making some modifications at home to reduce falling risks.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has more pointers.