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Your Health

Helping seniors improve balance and reduce the number of falls


Courtesy Of PhysioFit
Physical therapist Kim Gladfelter helps a patient with strength and core excercises, a regimen she said can help seniors with balance.

Seniors are more susceptible to falls than younger people. A variety of factors contribute to the increased danger of older adults losing their balance and taking a tumble that could cause a broken bone or head injury.

The following information aims to help family members make a senior’s environment safer and learn to ask the right questions when visiting a doctor.

Causes of falls

Seniors on average take two or more doctor-prescribed medications to control illnesses and symptoms. Some medications – such as antidepressants and those for allergies, nerve pain, nausea, vertigo or overactive bladders – can affect balance and even the thinking processes of the brain, and the seniors taking them may have no awareness that such changes are occurring.

Sometimes older patients take medications that react strongly in their systems, perhaps lowering their blood pressure or prompting a dip in blood sugar. Regulated by doctors, such medications should reduce the chance of imbalance and a fall.

Older adults may react negatively when adapting to a new medication – for example, an opiate-based painkiller. Sedatives, sleeping aids, tranquilizers and other medications for reducing anxiety may be too strong and thus affect a senior patient adversely. Physicians often reduce dosages taken at one time, or eliminate medications when symptoms decrease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that any senior concerned about falling request a medication review.

Underlying heart conditions are linked to a patient’s infirmity when standing, sitting, bending or stooping. Some positions or activities cause the heart to race, prompting dizziness. Physicians may want to check neurological functions or the development of a chronic disease like Parkinson’s.

Reducing falls

Following are tips aimed at preventing a senior’s fall.

• Because a senior’s confidence in his or her stride can reduce the fear of falling, the CDC suggests enrolling in a program that improves leg strength and balance through supervised exercise therapy. Be sure to find a class that takes into consideration the senior’s physical abilities and limitations.

• Evaluate posture, lower back, core strength and muscles that secure the pelvis and spine. If a senior cannot stand for a long period of time, it is a signal that regular exercise could help return strength and stability to their core and stance. Each of these factors is interrelated and benefits from a low-impact exercise plan.

• If a senior is having balance or strength problems, request a medication review. Recognize reasons for dizziness or feeling faint. Also ask the doctor to check the senior’s vitamin D level – lack of vitamin D causes frail bones.

• Conduct a home safety assessment. Safety measures include improving lighting and adding secure wall bars for balance and strength deficits for seniors near the toilet, shower, tub, bed and dresser. Move a senior’s bedroom downstairs if he or she has trouble navigating steps. 

• Purchase a fall-alert device the senior can wear and bring anywhere, from the bathroom to an outing at the park.

• Seniors should get regular eye checkups and update glasses prescriptions to reflect vision changes. Ophthalmologists can suggest vision exercises in addition to prescribing vision-improving vitamins and medication.

• Engage a physical therapist to conduct an assessment of gait and balance problems, demonstrate strengthening exercises, monitor pain that causes seniors to favor a foot or leg and recommend fall protection devices such as a walker or wheelchair. Physical therapists can advise ways to improve bone mass, increase flexibility and develop better muscle tone and balance.

Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy and Wellness, 1000 Fremont Ave. For more information, call 887-6064 or visit physiofitpt.com.

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