Everyone can be at risk of having a fall, but older adults are more vulnerable than others. This is mainly due to long-term health conditions that can increase the chances of a fall.
Other groups who are particularly at risk are young children and people whose job involves working at heights.
Falls are a common but often overlooked source of injury and sometimes death. In 2009 in England and Wales, there were 3,593 deaths as a result of falls.
Around 30% of adults who are over 65 and living at home will experience at least one fall a year. This rises to 50% of adults over 80 who are either at home or in residential care.
Most falls do not result in serious injury. However, 20% of older adults will require medical attention for a fall and 5% will experience a serious injury, such as a broken bone.
Falls can also have an adverse psychological impact on elderly people. For example, after having a fall a person can lose confidence, become withdrawn and may feel as if they have lost their independence.
What should I do if I have a fall?
If you have a fall, it is important to keep calm and remember what you need to do.
If you are not hurt and you feel strong enough to get up, do not get up quickly. Roll onto your hands and knees and look for a stable piece of furniture, such as a chair or bed. Hold on to the furniture with both hands to support yourself and when you feel ready, slowly get up. Sit down and rest for a while before carrying on with your daily activities.
If you are hurt or unable to get up, try to get someone’s attention by calling out for help, banging on the wall or floor or using your aid call button (if you have one). If possible, crawl to a telephone and dial 999 for an ambulance.
Try to reach something warm to put over you, particularly your legs and feet, such as a blanket or a dressing gown. Stay as comfortable as possible and try to change your position at least once every half an hour or so.
Read more about what to do if you fall.
If you are living with or caring for an elderly person, see accidents and first aid for information and advice about what to do after an accident.
What causes a fall?
The natural ageing process often places older adults at an increased risk of having a fall. In the UK, injuries that are caused by falls are the most common cause of death in people over the age of 75. There are three main reasons why older people are more likely to have a fall. These are:
Chronic health conditions, such as those listed above, can sometimes cause a loss of balance, a brief loss of consciousness (known as a drop attack) or a sudden feeling of dizziness, all of which could all contribute to a fall. Visual impairment or muscle weakness may also make it more difficult for an older person to prevent a fall.
Among older adults, the most common reasons for accidentally falling or slipping include:
- wet or recently polished floors, such as in a bathroom
- dim light
- rugs or carpets that are not properly secured
- reaching for storage areas, such as cupboards
Another common cause of falls, particularly among older men, is falling from a ladder while carrying out home maintenance work.
In older women, falls can be particularly troublesome because osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones) is a widespread problem. Osteoporosis is caused by hormonal changes that occur during the menopause.
Preventing a fall
There are several measures that an older person can take to help prevent a fall. Simple, everyday measures around the home include:
- using non-slip mats in the bathroom
- mopping up spills to avoid wet floors
- getting help lifting or moving items that are heavy or difficult to lift
Removing clutter and ensuring that all areas of the home are properly lit can also be useful measures in helping to prevent falls. The charity Age UK also provides advice about how to make tasks easier around the home.
Healthcare professionals take falls in older people very seriously because of the potentially serious impact that falls can have. As a result, there is a great deal of help and support available for older people and they should not feel worried to ask their GP about the various options.
You may want to have a medication review if medication that you are taking is causing side effects, such as dizziness, which is increasing your risk of having a fall. A sight test may also be beneficial if you are having problems with your vision. A home hazard assessment may also be available. It involves a healthcare professional visiting your home to identify potential hazards and to offer advice.
Strength and balance training can be particularly beneficial to older people, and many local community centres and gyms offer specialist courses. The Chinese martial art Tai Chi has also been shown to be very useful for older people because it involves slow, controlled movements and focuses on balance. To find out about the services that are available in your area, contact your local primary care trust (PCT).
Read more about the importance of exercise as you get older and how to prevent a fall.
Young children have a natural tendency to play boisterously but they are often not very good at judging risk. Most children will have at least one fall during their childhood.
Thankfully, children rarely die from a fall, but they often require medical attention. Each year, in the UK, an estimated 390,000 children are taken to accident and emergency (A&E) departments following a fall.
Read about preventing accidents to children in the home.
Falls from height are one of the most common causes of serious workplace injury and death.
During 2008/9, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that there were 35 deaths and 4,654 major injuries as a result of falls from height.
Read more about accidents and first aid.