Aging & Health A to Z
Causes & Symptoms
Falls are usually caused by a combination of several risk factors that jeopardize our ability to carry out the activities of daily living safely and securely. Many risk factors affect our ability to walk (our “gait”) and our balance. These factors include:
- physical risk factors related to your body (intrinsic factors)
- habit or lifestyle risk factors (extrinsic factors)
- environmental risk factors.
Physical Risk Factors
As we age, many of us develop long-term physical conditions or illnesses that impact on gait and balance. Also, a great number of older people suffer from more than one of these conditions at the same, making the risk of a fall even greater. The following are some examples of illnesses or conditions that increase the risk of falling:
- Older age
- Chronic pain
- Parkinson’s disease
- Anemia or other blood disorders
- Thyroid problems
- Foot disorders
- Muscle weakness in the legs
- Dizziness (vertigo) or balance difficulties
- Sensory disorders, such as vision or hearing problems, or neuropathy (numbness) in the legs and feet
- Brain or mood disorders, including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, delirium, depression, or psychotic behavior
- Urinary incontinence or frequency that requires numerous urgent trips to the bathroom, sometimes too late
- Dehydration. We tend to lose water as we get older. Dehydration (lack of fluids in your body) produces low blood pressure (hypotension) which can bring on a fall. Dehydration can also cause confusion, loss of balance, constipation, and many other unwelcome symptoms. You can become dehydrated without realizing it if the weather is warm, if you take diuretics (“water pills”) and certain other medications, or if you have specific conditions like diabetes.
- Fear that you will fall again
- Low vitamin D.
Lifestyle or Behavioral Risk Factors
Even healthy people experience new challenges with aging that can increase the risk of falling. Below are some examples of the health impacts of some lifestyle changes:
The older you get, the more likely it is that you take many different prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Drugs take longer to break down and leave your body when you are older. They may also interact with each other in ways that are unexpected and harmful. Certain drugs, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, sleeping pills, antidepressants, or antipsychotics strongly increase your chances of falling. Fluid pills (diuretics) and blood pressure medications can increase your chances of falling by lowering your blood pressure. Adding alcohol to the mix increases the risk of a fall. Some drugs have side effects such as dizziness or confusion that can also increase your fall risk.
Lack of exercise
Common problems like arthritis, dizziness, and chronic pain may turn you into a couch potato even if you were active before. Muscles disappear, joints ache more, and exercise presents more and more of a challenge. Also, staying indoors reduces your exposure to sunshine, reducing vitamin D production which you need to keep bones strong.
Shoes with heels or that your feet slide around in are particularly dangerous.
- Hazards in the home (loose carpets, wires, dark stairways or corridors) or in the surrounding environment (uneven ground, clutter in the yard)
- Slippery surfaces inside (water on the floor) or outside (ice and snow)
- Incorrect use of walking aids such as canes or walkers.
Updated: March 2012
Posted: March 2012