Falls Prevention Week: Fear of falls actually increases fall risk for seniors

Each day in North Carolina, accidental falls account for 531 emergency room visits, 69 hospitalizations and two to three deaths. As you may imagine, nearly 90 percent of these falls involve the elderly. Causes include taking more than four prescriptions and accompanying side effects, physical deconditioning, poor balance, dehydration and failure to properly adjust someone’s home to the changing needs that come with age.

But, for Dr. Jane Painter-Patton, professor of occupational therapy who leads ECU’s Fall Risk Assessment Clinic, there is a seemingly counterintuitive cause that she pays particular attention to. According to Painter-Patton, seniors who have anxiety about the possibility of a fall are actually more likely to experience one.

It is a vicious cycle.

“When people are more afraid of falling, they are more sedentary,” says Painter-Patton. “But we know that weakens their muscles and makes falls much more likely when they do get up to walk around. We try to address that with our patients and make sure that they know that the best way to prevent falls is actually safely increasing activity.”

Questions about anxiety and depression are part of the screening process at the clinic, which has been operating on ECU’s campus for more than five years. Painter-Patton and her team, which includes a geriatrician, geriatric pharmacist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, social worker, and nurses send patients home with a set of recommendations to improve both their mental and physical health. But, she says, old habits die hard.

“You’ve got someone who is 80-years-old and has never really exercised; it’s hard to get them to start,” she said. “But we start with simple range of motion activities (like Tai Chi) to get them moving, which we know improves their mood.”

So, while accidental falls remain a concern for the elderly, ECU is helping seniors realize that a proactive approach is the surest way to reduce risks. 

Other fall prevention strategies used by ECU’s occupational therapy department include incorporating Matter of Balance, an evidence-based fear of falling education program; the American Arthritis Tai Chi program and Free for Falls educational program for those with multiple sclerosis; and volunteer opportunities for ECU occupational and physical therapy students to assist with Eastern N.C. Falls Prevention Coalition activities. For example, ECU students helped screen almost 300 older adults for their risk of falls at the annual Falls Prevention Exposition held at the Greenville Convention Center during National Falls Prevention Week.