Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
What is a Fall?
Falls are among the most common dangers facing older adults, and one fall can change everything. Falls are a major threat to independent living and increase the risk of an early death. Healthcare professionals consider it a fall if you accidently and unexpectedly land on the ground. Sometimes landing on the ground unexpectedly is the result of a sudden impact from an outside force or loss of consciousness (such as from a seizure, stroke, or heart problem). However, healthcare professionals consider something a fall if it occurs for some other reason. Generally, a fall takes place in a familiar environment, while you are carrying out regular activities of daily living. A fall may even be the first sign of a new illness in an older person.
Falls can cause all kinds of fractures, including broken spine, hip, arm, leg, ankle, and pelvis. They are responsible for a high number of brain injuries in older people. They are also the number one cause of hospital admissions for injuries in older adults, and are responsible for increased use of medical services. The older you are, the more likely it is that a fall will result in admission to a long-term care facility or nursing home for at least a year, or even result in death.
If you have fallen, you may develop a fear of falling again. This can prevent you from going out or enjoying your normal activities. That then lowers your physical fitness, which increases your risk of yet another fall.
The Most Common Types of Falls
Although they may occur anywhere, most falls happen at home. They can surprise you when you are least expecting it, such as while you are carrying out normal everyday functions. Items in your home environment can turn out to be a hazard (danger). For example, a dark stairway, a rug, or a piece of furniture.
Falls that result in broken bones are twice as common in older women than in older men. One of the most frequent and serious fractures is a broken hip, which is a leading cause of loss of independence. If you were healthy before breaking a hip, usually you will recover, return home, and live on your own after some rehabilitation. But many older people need long-term care after falling and breaking a hip.
How Common are Falls?
Each year, up to a third of adults over the age of 65 who live at home experiences a fall. It’s even worse for people living in nursing homes, about half of whom fall each year. Almost two-thirds of older adults who suffered a fall within the past year will fall again.
Falls and the complications from them are the leading cause of both non-fatal and fatal injuries in adults over the age of 65. Although older women are more often injured in falls, men have a higher risk of dying after a fall.
Most falls only cause bruises and scrapes. However, up to 30% of falls result in lacerations (cuts), broken bones, head trauma, or other serious injuries. These require a trip to the emergency department. This means that each year, more than two million older adults in the US go to the emergency room because of fall-related injuries. Over half a million of these patients need to be hospitalized.
Each year about 18,000 older adults in the US die as a result of the injuries from a fall, mostly from brain injuries. In fact, four out of five fatal falls occur in people older than 65.
Updated: October 2017
Posted: March 2012