Like most kids, my childhood years featured several fairly predictable phases. At various points, I became obsessed with baseball cards, slot-car racing, whiffle ball, model cars, and Mad magazine. There was also a memorable period in grade school when I seemed to tumble down the stairs on a fairly regular basis.
I don’t recall much about this particular phase, only that the birth of my little sister required that I relinquish my first-floor bedroom and move upstairs to bunk with my two older brothers, and that subsequent forays down the steps often proved to be more dramatic than intended.
The one occasion that does stick in my mind almost 60 years hence involved my brother’s too-large cowboy boots and my ill-advised attempt to wear them while descending the basement stairs. I apparently cracked my noggin on the cement floor hard enough to alarm even my normally taciturn mother, who for reasons I didn’t grasp at the time, seemed particularly intent on preventing me from going to sleep.
I’m reminded of my vertically challenged youth at a time when elderly Americans are enduring a similar phase — only with more serious consequences. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week reported that falls are killing people 75 and older at an alarming rate. According to 2016 data, the number of fatalities per 100,000 people has more than doubled since 2000.
“The most likely reason is that people are living longer with conditions that in the past they might have died from,” study author Elizabeth Burns, MPH, told the New York Times. But she and other experts note that age is only part of the picture. Everything from sedentary lifestyles and medications to shoes and eyewear may be contributing to the trend.
“The biggest risk factor for falls that can’t be changed is your age,” said Elizabeth Eckstrom, MD, a geriatrician at Oregon Health and Science University. “Most of the other risks can be mitigated.”
Most of Eckstrom’s advice seems pretty obvious to this geezer: wear sensible shoes (Duh!), use a cane or walker if you need one, and eliminate tripping hazards in the home. But she also recommends ditching pharmaceutical sleep aids, which can cause dizziness, and sticking with single-focus eyewear, rather than progressive lenses, when walking outdoors. Bifocals and their ilk can alter your depth perception, she notes.
And exercise — especially routines that improve lower-body strength and balance — may be the most important factor in preventing a fatal tumble. A recent University of British Columbia study found that such training reduced the incidence of falls while also boosting cognitive function. Results of the 12-month clinical trial, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that thrice-weekly workouts with free weights and balance moves reduced tumbles by 36 percent among a group of elderly volunteers with a history of falls.
“When we think about falls, we often think about loss of muscle strength and poor balance,” lead study author Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PhD, explained in a statement. “However, the ability to remain upright and not fall is also dependent on cognitive abilities — calculating how far to lift your foot to get over a curb, making a decision as to when to cross the road, and paying attention to your physical environment while you are having a conversation.”
Liu-Ambrose makes a good point about the importance of decision-making as we geezers strive to remain upright while navigating from point A to point B. She reminds me, for instance, that I could certainly be more mindful when hauling a load of laundry down to the basement. That said, sometimes experience is the best teacher: You’ll never catch me sporting a pair of cowboy boots in the vicinity of a stairway. Or anywhere else, for that matter.