Preventing seniors from falls can be a life-or-death matter, warns physiotherapist

Falls are one of the top reasons seniors find themselves getting hurt and hospitalized. According to experts, reducing the risk of falling is both physical and cognitive.
Basic exercise such as walking can help prevent falling, one of the leading cases of hospitalization due to injury among Canadian seniors. (Pixabay)
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The consequences of a fall on an older person can be the difference between life and death, according to Barbara Adams, Nova Scotia's self-proclaimed "queen of falls prevention."

Adams, a longtime physiotherapist and Progressive Conservative MLA, has been teaching people how not to fall for three decades.

It's estimated that between 20 and 30 per cent of Canadian seniors fall each year, according to a report by the Public Health Agency of Canada. (pdf link to study here)

"The biggest misconception is that a fall is not that big a deal and that it's just an embarrassing moment that the person wants to forget about," Adams tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Barbara Adams explains how the fear of pain can lead to a greater risk of falling. 0:28

But far too often, falls can lead to serious repercussions, says Adams.

"A senior who has a fall and breaks a hip has a 20 percent chance of dying that year from complications like blood clots and pneumonia," she explains.

"I see it far too often. That statistic is real."

Falling is not an accident. It's something Adams can gauge "months ahead of time" by assessing their balance, speed of walking and length of steps.

"I can predict which of my patients is going to have a fall," says Physiotherapist Barbara Adams. 1:28

The sitting disease

"The number one reason why seniors are falling is they sit too much," she says. "We call it the sitting disease."

Adams suggests walking is a key exercise that all seniors can do to prevent a fall. She also suggests squats.

"If every senior practiced going from sitting to standing every single day they will lower the risk of falling significantly."

There are psychological consequences from falling, says Montero-Odasso, such as depression which can lead to a lack of engagement in activities and result in immobility - and a higher risk of falling again. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The cognitive connection to mobility

Dr. Manuel Montero-Odasso agrees exercise can alter the risk of falling, and adds that it's not just good for you physically, but mentally too. His latest study suggests cognitive improvement in older people can be a complementary way to reduce falls. 

He tells Tremonti that resistant-training and balance exercise apply to muscle and joint flexibility but also cognition. 

"The effect of exercises are not just focusing the muscle, they are also improving some aspect of cognition related to frontal lobe health in the brain."

Dr. Montero-Odasso's research states brain networks in the front lobe that help control navigation and gait — the way we walk — are also the same networks that are vital for memory and attention.

"We do know that when multitasking, your attention may switch to the cognitive task rather than focus into maintaining your balance and that can trigger a fall," he says.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann and Halifax Network Producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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