Falls are one of life’s great overlooked perils. We fear terror attacks, shark bites, Ebola outbreaks and other remote dangers, yet each year an estimated 646,000 people die worldwide after falling. Falls are the second-leading cause of death by injury, after car accidents.
Falls are even more significant as a cause of injury. Though not fatal, approximately 37.3 million falls severe enough to require medical attention occur each year worldwide. And while elderly people with fragile bones certainly need to be careful, they may not be the group at the biggest risk of injuring themselves in a fall.
In a study published in the peer-reviewed science journal PLOS One, in 2017, nearly 18 per cent of men aged 18 to 44 had reported a fall-related injury in the previous three months, more than double the percentage of men 65 and older.
Falls can happen anywhere at any time to anyone. Spectacular falls from great heights outdoors, such as the plunge of the Moreno brothers, are actually extremely rare. The most dangerous spots for falls are not rooftops or cliffs but the lowlevel interior settings of everyday life: shower stalls, supermarket aisles and staircases.
Any fall, even a tumble out of bed, can change life profoundly, taking someone from robust health to grave disability in less than one second. It’s no wonder that scientists are now encouraging people of all ages to learn how to fall to minimise injury. They believe falling needs to be viewed not so much as an unexpected hazard to be avoided but as an inevitability to be prepared for.
Given the tremendous cost of falls to individuals and society and the increasing knowledge of how and why falls occur, it pays to learn how to prevent them – and what you can do to reduce harm in the split second after you start to fall. Some of the following tips are just common sense – and too easily brushed aside until the oversight has caused an accident. A few suggestions might require a bit of training, or at least some practise. They’re all worth thinking about, no matter how steady you may feel on your feet.
- BE CAREFUL, EVEN IN THE MOST ORDINARY PLACES
Watch where you are going. Don’t walk while reading or using your phone. Always hold handrails – most people using staircases do not. Don’t have your hands in your pockets, as this reduces your ability to regain your balance if you stumble. Remember that your balance can also be thrown off by a heavy suitcase or backpack.
2. PREPARE YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Secure loose rugs or remove them. Make sure the tops and bottoms of staircases are lit. Clean up spills immediately. Install safety bars and put down traction strips in showers, and treat slick surfaces such as smooth marble floors with anti-slip coatings.
3. IMPROVE YOUR GEAR
Wear good shoes with tread. Don’t wear high heels on slippery surfaces. Wear a helmet when cycling, skiing, and skateboarding. Use a cane or a walker if required. Hike with a walking stick. And get a hearing aid if you need one. “Individuals with hearing loss had more difficulty with balance and gait and showed significant improvement when they had a hearing aid,” says Linda Thibodeau, a professor at the Advanced Hearing Research Center in Texas.
4. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Drugs, alcohol and even sleep deprivation can affect balance and coordination, making them a factor in falls. If you feel light-headed or faint, sit down immediately. Don’t worry that someone might think you are weak or that you are being rude; you can get back up once you’ve established you are not going to lose consciousness.
Eat a balanced diet to support bone density and muscle strength, especially if you are older, so that you are less likely to be injured if you do fall. A 2015 study of more than 12,000 elderly French people found connections between poor nutrition, falling and fractures. Strength training helps, too. Lower body strength is important for recovering from slips; upper body strength for surviving falls.
5. IF YOU FALL, PROTECT YOUR HEAD AND ROLL
Scientists studying falls are developing ‘safe landing responses’ to help limit damage. If you are falling, first protect your head. Fight trainers, who train actors, and parachute jump coaches encourage people not to fall straight forwards or backwards. The key is to roll and try to let the fleshy side parts of your body absorb the impact.
Of course, you will be better able to loosen up, pivot to your side, tuck and roll if you are in good physical condition. “If you have a room full of soccer players and computer desk workers and go around knocking people over, you can bet the soccer players are going to be less likely to get hurt because of their superior strength, agility and coordination,” said Erik Moen, a physical therapist in Kenmore, Wash.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be an elite athlete or paratrooper to fall the “right way.” Young children are arguably the best fallers because they have yet to develop fear or embarrassment, so they just tumble and roll without tensing up and trying to catch themselves. Be careful and stay upright!
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