As We Age, Balance Exercises Become Important Part of Fitness Routine

by Dorian Martin Patient Advocate

Recently, a middle-aged friend confided that she was most surprised at experiencing difficulty with keeping her balance during exercises that are part of her new exercise regimen. And that ability to remain upright increasingly becomes important as we age (as evidenced by my 80-plus-year-old father's numerous falls this past spring).

According to the World Health Organization, falls are actually the second leading cause of accidental deaths or unintentional injury deaths worldwide. An estimated 424,000 individuals die annually from falls internationally. Of these deaths, 80 percent are in low- and middle-income countries. The greatest number of fatal falls is experienced by adults who are over the age of 65. WHO also reports that 37.3 million falls annually are severe enough to require medical attention.

So what about the United States? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in three adults who are 65 years of age and older fall each year. Of those, 20-30 percent suffer moderate to severe injuries that make it difficult for them to get around or live independently. These falls also increase the risk of these adults' early death. Furthermore, policymakers note that older adults are hospitalized for fall-related injuries five times more often than from injuries caused by other accidents. Emergency departments treated 2.4 million nonfatal fall injuries by older adults in 2011. Approximately 689,000 of these people had to be hospitalized.

Specific Exercises to Prevent Falls

In a new study, researchers reviewed 17 studies involving over 4,000 participants to determine whether fall-prevention exercises reduced the risk of fractures and other injuries caused when people 65 years of age and above fall. Their analysis found that most of the programs studied - which included Tai Chi, gait, balance, strength and functional training - reduced fall-related injuries. In addition, these programs were believed to significantly decrease the falls that lead to injuries and hospitalizations.

MedLinePlus offers some specific exercises that can help strengthen muscles and improve balance. These exercises include balance exercises, toe stand, knee curl, leg extension, back leg stretch, tai chi, and simple movements and exercises in a swimming pool.

Balance Exercises Important in Controlling Health Costs

Falls are also costly. The CDC reported that in 2010, the total direct medical costs for these types of injuries for people who are 65 years of age and older was $30 billion, when adjusted for inflation. Over the next decade, the annual cost - both direct and indirect - of injuries from falls is expected to reach $54.9 billion (in 2007 dollars). Fall-related injuries are one of the 20 most expensive medical conditions among older adults who live in communities. Medicare costs averaged between $9,113 and $13,507 per fall; more than one in five community-dwelling seniors said they had a fall in 2001. The direct medical costs for falls break down as follows: 65 percent for inpatient hospitalizations; 10 percent for medical office visits; 10 percent for home health care; eight percent for hospital outpatient visits; seven percent for emergency room visits; and one percent each for prescription drugs and dental visits. Slightly more than three-quarters of these costs were reimbursed by Medicare.

The CDC adds that the costs of injuries as a result of falling increase rapidly with age. The costs of falls - both fatal and nonfatal - are higher for women; in fact, the medical costs for women (who make up almost 60 percent of older adults) were as much as three times higher than men in 2000.

One of the hazards of falls is traumatic brain injuries as well as injuries to the lower extremities. These types of falls accounted for 78 percent of deaths by falls and 79 percent of total costs in 2000. Internal organ injuries were responsible for 28 percent of fall deaths. The most common injuries in nonfatal falls and the most costly were fracture. These types of injuries accounted for 61 percent of the total nonfatal costs.

And the cost of falls can quickly add up and strain the pocketbook. The CDC reported, "In a 1998 study of people age 72 and older, the average health care cost of a fall injury totaled $19,440, which included hospital, nursing home, emergency room, and home health care, but not doctors' services."

So here's to adding Tai Chi -- and toe raises -- to your exercise routine!

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Burns, S. (2013). Exercise programs could help to prevent fall injuries in older people.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Costs of falls among older adults.

MedlinePlus. (Nd). Exercises to help prevent falls.

World Health Organization. (2012). Falls.

Dorian Martin
Meet Our Writer
Dorian Martin

Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.