Preventing Falls and Fractures
If osteoporosis has started to thin your bones, even a simple fall or twist can have devastating consequences. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 10 million people have osteoporosis, and almost 34 million more have low bone mass, which places them at risk for fractures.
Most of the breaks occur in the spine, wrist, and -- worst of all -- the hip. About 20% of older people who break their hips fail to regain the independence they had before the injury, and about one out of four die within one year of the break.
"While Santa Barbara and Goleta Valley Cottage Hospitals perform better than the national average in the treatment of hip fractures, prevention is better than the best fracture treatment," says Dr. Eric Shepherd, an Orthopedic Surgeon affiliated with the Cottage Center for Orthopedics.
Even if you already have thin bones or have already suffered a fracture, you can take the following steps to prevent future breaks.
- Get your bones tested. One of the keys to avoiding fractures is understanding your risk. A simple bone density scan can gauge the strength of your bones and help your doctor plan a strategy for protecting them. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends bone density scans for all women 65 and over, all postmenopausal women at high risk for osteoporosis, and all men and women over the age of 50 who have already fractured a bone.
- Get your calcium and vitamin D. These two nutrients are like bricks and mortar for your bones, and they're powerful protection against fractures. In a three-year study of 389 people over the age of 65, researchers at Tufts University found that supplements of calcium (500 milligrams per day) and vitamin D (700 international units per day) cut the risk of broken bones roughly in half. These nutrients are also found in dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables (which contain calcium but not vitamin D), and fortified cereals.
- Exercise. Much research has recently focused on aging and exercise due to an unusual partnership between the National Institute on Aging and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to determine the effects of weightlessness on the human body. Without the effect of gravity, astronauts' muscles and bones begin to deteriorate while they're in space -- a process similar to what happens to us during aging if we lead a sedentary lifestyle. Fortunately, "weight-bearing" exercises can help prevent this: Walking, running, stair climbing, dancing, and weight lifting will improve your bone density while giving you extra strength, agility, and balance to prevent falls. Swimming and cycling are good exercises as well, but you need an exercise that bears your weight to build denser bones.
- Consider medications. If your bones are already fragile or you're at high risk of osteoporosis, today's doctors have an impressive arsenal of tools for protecting your bones. Be sure to ask about side effects, especially serious ones, before making your decision.
- Accident-proof yourself. Falls cause a majority of all fractures in older people, so keeping upright is the best protection you can give your bones. Ask your doctor if any of your medications might throw off your balance, and, if necessary, ask for an alternative. Drink alcohol in moderation, as it can make you unsteady and increase your risk of falling. For extra protection, wear sturdy shoes with rubber soles, remove tripping hazards from your floor (loose wires, cords, throw rugs, and so on), and cover loose cable wires and electrical cords. Also, make sure all stairways have secure handrails and nonskid treads, keep your house well-lit, and place rubber mats or nonskid tape in the kitchen near the stove and sink.
- Inspect your bathroom. Install grab bars and nonskid strips (or rubber mats) in bathtubs and shower stalls. Replace a "spring rod" with a screw-in shower curtain rod. If you start to fall, this rod will offer more support (don't grab at the towel rack -- it may come off in your hand!)
- Protect your eyes. Have your vision checked to be sure your eyeglasses are the right prescription and that you don't have glaucoma or cataracts, which limit vision.
Also, be aware that at least half of the falls among seniors take place outdoors, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those who fall outdoors tend to be healthier than those who fall indoors, but are tripped by curbs and bumps in sidewalks or parking lots. Pay close attention to your environment and uneven or slippery surfaces, which can give even the healthiest person a nasty spill.