Preventing Falls in Aging

A fall is a risk factor for frail elderly, old-old, or people who do not combine exercise with joint mobility, balance training and proprioceptive stimulation. For frail elders, it is often the trigger for a steep decline, since pain impedes movement, decreases circulation and appetite. A fall that is accompanied by hip fracture or compression fractures of the spine can be the beginning of the end for the 75% of older adults who do not recover completely. For those over 70, two thirds of those who fall will fall again within a year. Preventing falls and decreasing fall risks are therefore of great concern for elders and their caregivers.

Decreasing the risk

Studies have shown a decreased fall risk when seniors practice exercises designed by physical therapists to strengthen lower leg muscles, improve balance and stability, and increase active range of motion of all joints (see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, www.cdc.gov on Preventing Falls Among Older Adults). Other studies have participants practicing modified Tai Chi. Its gentle, slow movements require concentration on the quality of movement, and seniors who practice it increase lower limb strength while they improve mobility, flexibility, balance and and coordination. Most of these studies show at least a 35% decrease in falls and a 35% decrease in serious injuries from falls for those over 65 who spent several months to a year learning and practicing either the modified Tai Chi or the P.T. program.

The same benefits do not accrue from just doing stretching exercises. The combination of professionally designed movement programs with participant’s conscious awareness stimulates the reflexes and sensation in the feet more than just exercise alone. These movement programs are capable of stimulating nerve pathways, which increases sensation at the bottoms of the feet, improving balance.

For a good falls prevention program, there also needs to be an assessment of unsafe environmental factors, such as uneven carpeting, irregular stairs, narrow spots where a walker must be turned, erratic cats, and throw rugs.

How does this relate to massage?

Massage, properly applied, stimulates the sensory nerves at the bottoms of the feet. It relieves the tightness of muscles and releases tension from poor posture that could contribute to imbalance. It improves sleep which allows for more alertness during the day. And it increases joint range of motion, allowing the person to move more easily, more freely, with better control over their body. It is a useful adjunct to a movement program.

(See article on Senior Sovereignty in the workshop section of this website)

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