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Tai Chi May Combat Seniors’ Fear of Falling

By: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

It’s the fear of many older Americans – falling and injuring themselves. And their fears are not unfounded. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 33 percent of Americans, age 65 or older, have at least one serious fall each year.

With seniors leading increasingly active lifestyles, hip fractures have steadily increased. There was an increase of more than 80,000 incidents from 1988 to 1996. PM&R physicians help individuals rehabilitate and recover after a fall. But they realize that preventing falls in the first place is the most effective way that they can help.

The reason falls in older people can be so serious is that healing occurs more slowly as we age. Other health factors such as osteoporosis, arthritis, and weak cardiopulmonary systems can delay rehabilitation sessions and prevent full recovery.

The costs can also be staggering – especially for those lacking insurance or with inadequate coverage. In 1997 the average first year costs of hip fractures were between $16,300 and $18,700

About 60 percent of falls occur at home during normal daily activities. According to PM&R physician Florian Keplinger, MD, seniors can reduce their risk of falling by making a few simple changes in their lives and their homes.

  1. Increase the lighting in work and living spaces in order to see better. Keep a night light on.

  2. Remove articles that rest on the floor that someone could trip on (rugs, footstools, grandchildren's toys!). Secure throw rugs with double-sided tape or get rid of them completely.

  3. Install handrails on stairs; use non-slip mats in bathtubs and showers.

  4. Review all the medications being taken with a physician or pharmacist. Many medications will affect people differently as they age, such as causing light-headedness or drowsiness.

  5. Get routine eye and ear exams to catch any deficits.

  6. Restrict pets to certain areas of the house.

  7. Begin an exercise program to strengthen the body. Perform exercises that involve range of motion and isolation of different movements.

  8. Wear sturdy shoes with thin, non-slip soles instead of running shoes with thick soles. Avoid slippers.

Studies have shown that the most effective fall prevention programs offered to seniors have reduced falls by 30-50%. These programs usually include a review of someone’s current medications, risk factor reduction and safety modifications to their home, education, and the introduction of an exercise program. Tai Chi, a martial art that uses slow movements, has been proven to reduce the risk of falling for many seniors. The movements and philosophy of Tai Chi teach people to relax, slow down, coordinate their mind and body, and improve posture. Studies published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that Tai Chi benefits cardiorespiratory function and that increased strength and balance can help prevent falls. The strength and balance that Tai Chi and other exercises build also boost self-confidence. All of these factors combine to make seniors feel stronger and more confident as they move.

The key to success with any of these fall prevention techniques is that older adults must take an active role in making these changes to their lives. For those individuals who have been injured from a fall, psychological counseling immediately after an injury may be one of the best remedies to avoid depression. But that can be difficult for a patient who has never needed any.

If you are interested in learning more about Tai Chi, check local community centers or health clubs for classes, or check out instructional videos from your video rental store. As always, check with your physician before beginning any new exercise program.