OHSU experts warn seniors of increased rates of dangerous falls

OHSU experts warn seniors of increased rates of dangerous falls

Elderly man wearing a fall hazard bracelet while in hospital. OHSU experts want more people to understand the dangers of falls at ground level and how to prevent them. (Getty Images)

One of the biggest causes of traumatic injuries treated at Oregon Health & Science University involves people, usually older adults, rolling over on flat ground.

Known as ground-level falls, this type of injury accounts for about 19% of all patients treated for trauma at OHSU in 2021. OHSU has seen a sharp increase in ground-level falls over the past five years. Although it may not appear as serious as the other leading causes of trauma – gunshots, stabbings, and car accidents – this seemingly harmless accident is actually the second leading cause of unintentional deaths worldwide.

The reason: an aging population is more prone to falls. Many of these injuries can be life-threatening and life-affecting, often due to underlying medical conditions exacerbated by the impact.

Martin Schreiber, MD, standing with a brown background.

Martin Schreiber, MD (OHSU)

“Gravity wins,” Martin Schreiber, MD, chair of the division of trauma surgery, critical care, and acute care at OHSU College of Medicine. “For the past three or four years, falls at ground level have overtaken car crashes as the number one cause of trauma, not just here, but across the country.

“This is one of the biggest problems in the United States today.”

OHSU, one of two Level 1 trauma centers in Oregon, treated a total of 756 people for ground-level depressions in 2021 — a sharp increase compared to 486 such injuries treated in 2017. More than 75% of those The cases included people older than 65.

An OHSU geriatrician says the problem is rooted in a burgeoning elderly population.

Katie Drago, MD, next to a brown background.

Katie Drago, MD (OHSU)

“The fastest growing demographic in the United States is people over the age of 85,” he said. Katie Drago, MDD., assistant professor of medicine (general internal medicine and geriatrics) at OHSU College of Medicine. “It’s great that people are living longer, but it also means we’re seeing more traumatic injuries from falls at ground level.”

After the first fall, Drago said, older adults are two to three times more likely to fall again.

“If we can do things to get out of that loop, we can actually reduce their risk of getting infected – and they can continue to live independently,” she said. “Falling is not inevitable.”


There has been a steady increase in ground-level fall injuries treated at OHSU. (OHSU/David Riofrio)

As part of Fall Prevention Awareness Week, September 18-24, the National Council on Aging joined with health care workers to emphasize fall reduction measures to ensure older adults can live safely and independently.

Playing sports

Drago said she emphasizes the importance of physical activity with her patients, including aerobic exercise, strength training and balance through activities like tai chi. She advises the elderly to include exercise in their daily routine.

“Inertia really kills,” she said. “Moving objects remain in motion.”

mind medicine

Drago said the ground-level dips aren’t usually due to any one factor, but could be a combination of factors. For example, medications can combine in unexpected ways, resulting in dizziness that contributes to a fall.

She often works with her patients to draw out long lists of medications and supplements. It is also worth discussing whether bifocal glasses used for reading may not be ideal for commuting.

She said it’s essential to visit a health care provider any time someone falls.

“Usually, people wouldn’t be able to distinguish for themselves if they simply stumbled, or if they had a major neurological or cardiac problem that had to be dealt with,” Drago said. “If you fall, you should talk to your primary care provider.”

Pave the way

Drago said many cases reach shock bays as a simple result of the chaos. Someone gets up at night to use the bathroom and travels over a pile of books; or that their hallway is not wide enough to use the stick without hitting the wall; Or overgrown bushes encroaching on driveways around the house.

Maintaining a clear path enables older adults to reduce the risk of falls and continue to live independently.

“Small things like this can make a big difference to people,” Drago said.

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