Managing falls: how can they be avoided?

Dr James Frith (pictured), NIHR Clinician Scientist Fellow, Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University, and Lead Educator on 'Ageing Well: Falls’ on the FutureLearn platform, discusses why it’s important to recognise the risks associated with falls and gives his top tips on how to reduce the risk of falling.

Why are falls important and why should we do our best to avoid them?

The obvious reason is that falls can result in injuries, ranging from a small graze to multiple broken bones. But falls can also result in a loss of confidence, which in turn can make people fearful of performing certain activities or even leaving the house, which can lead to feelings of isolation.

Falls also cost the NHS huge amounts of money. Each year the UK NHS spends £2 billion on treating the consequences of falls. That’s because falls are so common: each year, one in three people aged over 65 will suffer from a fall, and one in two people aged over 80 will fall each year.

Can anything be done to reduce the risk of falling?

Yes. Falls are preventable, often by taking very simple action. The single best thing we can all do to prevent falls is to keep the strength and balance in our legs working well. We can do this by keeping as active as possible and ideally attending community falls prevention classes. We can also have a look around our home for objects that we could trip over, such as wires, rug edges and clutter.

We need to keep our eyes and feet healthy to maintain our balance, so we should visit the optician regularly and tell them if we have problems with falls. We can keep our bones strong by exercising, having a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes.

Sometimes medical problems can cause falls. We should always report dizziness and falls to a professional. They may wish to review our medication or refer to a specialist falls or balance clinic.

How can carers and relatives reduce the risk of falling for their patient or loved one?drjames

Carers and relatives could have a look around for trip hazards in the house and could tape down rug edges (or remove them completely), position wires around the edges of the room, clear away clutter and encourage any grandchildren to tidy away toys. It is also important to make sure there is adequate lighting throughout the house.

Some people may not be able to stand up following a fall. We can encourage our friends or relatives to wear a Fall Alarm, or carry a mobile phone in their pocket just in case.

What are the main worries and concerns of carers and relatives and what top tips would you give them to alleviate their concerns?

Sometimes carers and relatives can become overprotective of people who fall and try to stop them doing things. In fact, we should try to do the opposite and help people to stay as active as possible to keep the strength and balance in the legs.

People worry that if they report falls to a doctor they will be taken into a care home. This isn’t the case. Falls are not an inevitable part of ageing; they are preventable. It is important to find out why they’re happening so we can treat the underlying cause and help keep people independent and injury-free.

We discuss all of these points in Newcastle University’s free online course:  ‘Ageing Well: Falls’ on the FutureLearn social learning platform, developed especially for people who have fallen, their families, friends and carers.