LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
More seniors are dying from falls nearly three times more in 2016 than in 2000. That's according to a new report in The Journal of the American Medical Association. What is behind that increase? We'll put that question now to Elizabeth Eckstrom. She is the chief of geriatrics at Oregon Health and Science University and the author of the book "The Gift Of Caring."
Dr. Eckstrom, welcome to the program.
ELIZABETH ECKSTROM: Thank you for having me, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are seniors falling more than they used to or are there more seniors? Or does something else explain this increase?
ECKSTROM: I think it might be a little bit of both. There are so many more seniors than there used to be, and that is only going to increase over time. Also, there's probably better reporting that there used to be. There's more awareness about falls as older adults and doctors are starting to think about it a little bit more frequently, so that's probably spurred some of the increase. But, hopefully, seniors are out and active and doing things. And I think our older adults are starting to do that, and that also is going to put you at risk for falling. I always tell people please do not be sedentary. That's the worst thing you can do. You've got to be out and active. But being - you know, being out and doing things does, you know, allow you to put yourself in a position where you could fall.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is falling an inevitable part of aging? What are some of the interventions you've used that have helped seniors?
ECKSTROM: Absolutely not, and that's what I tell people all the time. A lot of older adults and a lot of physicians think that falling is inevitable as you age. But in reality, it's not. You can do so many things. First of all, I tell everybody, you've got to do some balance training. Tai chi's probably the best exercise to prevent falls. Just walking does not reduce your risk for falls. You've got to do something specific to balance, with tai chi being the best. Also, I think one of the biggest problems for falls - and this is probably another reason that they're increasing right now - is that so many older adults are on risky medications - sleeping pills, pain pills. A lot of the drugs that older adults have been prescribed for years and years have markedly increased risk for falling. If we could get everybody off of those pills, it would be so helpful.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's interesting you mentioned that because in another study from last year, the Centers for Disease Control found that physicians routinely failed to perform some basic interventions, like reviewing medications, recommending specific types of exercise, referring people to a vision specialist. Why do you think that is?
ECKSTROM: Probably just lack of time - most primary care doctors have no more than 15 minutes with a patient. And they're managing their diabetes, their congestive heart failure, their asthma - all of those other medical conditions - and don't recognize the importance of fall prevention in that milieu. It takes a lot of work to help an older adult reduce their risk for falling. You've got to talk about the glasses. You've got to make sure they're wearing the right shoes. You've got to make sure they're using a gait aid if they need one, such as a cane or a walker. And all of those things take time, and I think that's probably the biggest problem. The CDC has also done a beautiful job of putting together a fall prevention package and initiative called STEADI - stopping elderly accidents, deaths and injuries - to help, you know, both clinical teams and older adults and families help to reduce risk for falling.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you just remind us why falling is so dangerous for older adults?
ECKSTROM: The biggest risk from falling, of course, is a hip fracture or a closed head injury. And those can be fatal, of course. Also, many older adults who fall curtail their activities because they're afraid they're going to fall again. And again, that's kind of the worst thing you can do because now you're losing mobility. You're getting weaker. I tell everybody just get out move. Do whatever you can. Do it frequently. Do it throughout the day. And that is your absolute best way to reduce your risk for falling.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elizabeth Eckstrom - she's chief of geriatrics at Oregon Health and Science University.
Thank you very much.
ECKSTROM: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE 1975 SONG, "I LIKE IT WHEN YOU SLEEP, FOR YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL YET SO UNAWARE OF IT")
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