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Senior Citizen's Guide to Pittsburgh

The Downside of Falls
A Fall May Signal Underlying Problems

Most people know that falling when you are older is not a good thing. What people aren’t always aware of are the subtle reasons why preventing falls in late life is so important.

“The most obvious concern is injury,” says Stephanie Studenski, MD, MPH, director of the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at the University of Pittsburgh and winner of the 2010 National Award for Falls Prevention Research. The less obvious, but equally important concern, she explains, is the fear that can develop around falling —especially after a person has already fallen once. “Fear of falling can cause people to restrict their activity and sacrifice their independence. In some cases, it can even lead to social isolation,” she says.

According to Dr. Studenski, falls also are important because they may indicate other emerging health problems; clear signals from the body that something isn’t working right. A major part of her work at the Fall Clinic, located at UPMC’s Senior Care-Benedum Geriatric Center, is figuring out what that “something”— or, more often, “somethings” — might be. “Older adults who become unsteady often have several factors contributing to the problem,” she says. By looking at the body as a system and then isolating multiple small problems that contribute to the tendency to fall, she and her team create a targeted plan of treatment to help seniors regain their balance and a steady gait.

How do you know if you’re at risk for falling? Dr. Studenski recommends that seniors receive a multi-disciplinary fall risk assessment if they feel unsteady on their feet —even if they haven’t yet had a fall. “There are many people whose balance we are able to considerably improve by being proactive,” she says.

Other signs that you’re at risk include; memory loss, decreased appetite or weight loss, depression or agitation, incontinence, generalized weakness, multiple medical diseases, multiple medications with possible side effects, and loss of self-care ability. After the risk assessment, health care providers work to create a plan for the patient’s continuing care.

The plan includes guidance on how to help support patients in their home for as long as possible or assist in decision-making about the community services needed to support independent functioning.

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