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Study Suggests Increase in Falls Among the Elderly

During a 12-year period, the prevalence of falls among older adults appeared to be on the rise, according to a new nationally representative study.

Falling is the most frequent cause of injury among older adults and each year about one-third of older adults fall. Researchers analyzed data from 1998 to 2010 among adults aged 65 and older and found an 8% increase in falls, which translates to a relative increase of nearly 30%. The findings appeared earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“We expected an increase because older adults are getting older, and there are more 80- and 90-year-old adults than before, but we were very surprised to find that the increase in falls was not due to the changing demography,” says lead author Christine Cigolle, MD, MPH, an assistant professor in the departments of family medicine and internal medicine at the University of Michigan (U-M) and a research scientist at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center.

“We saw a higher number of falls across all age groups—not just the oldest—and that was unexpected,” Cigolle says.

Researchers looked at trends in falling in a nationally representative sample of middle-aged and older adults in the Health and Retirement Study, which is conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research on behalf of the National Institute of Aging.

Falling was defined as an individual’s having experienced at least one self-reported fall within the preceding two years. Among all adults aged 65 and older, the two-year prevalence of self-reported falls increased from about 28% in 1998 to 36% in 2010. Despite the greater prevalence of reported falls, however, the study did not find that older adults were reporting more fall injuries.

Authors note that programs such as “Matter of Balance” that focus on making older adults more aware of balance and provide strategies to reduce risks of falling, may also improve reporting. However, further research is needed to identify possible reasons behind the numbers, such as an increase in fall risk factors (eg, cardiovascular and psychiatric medications that may have side effects like dizziness) or an increase in fall risk behavior.

“It’s possible that older adults are more aware of fall risk and may be more likely to report it now than before,” says Cigolle, who is also a member of the Institute of Gerontology and the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

“However, if the prevalence of falls is actually increasing as much as it seems to be, we need to do more work to identify possible factors and how we can address what we know to be a high risk among a vulnerable group.”

U-M is among 10 clinical trial sites in the country for a major study on preventing fall injuries among the elderly and to find effective, evidence-based strategies to address the personal and public health burden of falls.

— Source: University of Michigan Health System