Jeff Angileri
Sep 30, 2008, 11:19 AM

As we grow older, it's no surprise to anyone that we tend to walk a little bit more carefully to avoid falling and breaking a bone. But falls are much more serious than that. Each year 15,000 adults die due to injuries sustained after falling, 20-30 in Dane County alone. And Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of any state.

"It's a significant problem," says Dr. Andy Kosseff, physician director of quality improvement for St. Mary's Hospital. "Wisconsin is one of the states that has a higher than average fall rate. No one knows why, but it's in the top five states for rate of falls."

In Dane County, falls by seniors add up to 1,000 emergency room visits each year in addition to 1,100 hospital admissions. The injuries sustained amount to $18 million in health care costs for those citizens, and Dr. Kosseff says that is likely underestimated.

Falls amount to more than just monetary costs, there are emotional tolls as well. People who fall are more likely to fall again with the second time around being more serious. In addition, people who become injured on their first or subsequent falls may lose confidence in their ability to walk - resulting in a loss of independence.

"Many times falls go unreported because people are worried that if they say they fell, they'll lose their independence," says Dr. Kosseff. "Our goal as health care providers is to do the opposite - increase their knowledge to prevent falls and keep people independent for as long as possible."

A Step in the Right Direction

One group trying to change the stigma surrounding falls is the Falls Prevention Task Force; a coalition of 37 individuals including members of the community, health care agencies, the Aging Network of Dane County and Safe Communities. Dr. Kosseff is a member of the group and he says awareness of the problem can go a long way to preventing it.

"Awareness is very important - to show the public just how significant and serious a fall can be," says Dr. Kosseff. "And, through awareness, we can highlight the fact that this is not an inevitable part of aging."

So what can be done? Quite a bit!

First is the home evaluation. A trained falls prevention specialist visits an individual's house and looks tripping hazards. This can be chairs, tables, and rugs or any obstruction that could get in the way - especially during a late night trip to the restroom, for instance.

"We also look at homes with multiple levels. Any instance where someone might be able to trip and fall or lose their balance is identified," says Dr. Kosseff. "Once you know where the risks are in your home, you can make changes or at least know where you need to be more careful."

Next, a doctor evaluates the individual's medical condition. Prescriptions, while important for controlling cholesterol or blood pressure can, in some cases, contribute to falls.

"Medications are probably one of the more important things we look at," says Dr. Kosseff.

Certain categories of medications, like sedatives and tranquilizers, can make a person particularly vulnerable to falls. Researchers continue to identify new medications and combinations of medications that can lead to increased fall risk. Once those medications are identified, the next step is for a patient and their doctor to discuss what can be done to minimize that risk. In some cases it could mean extra precautions while taking the drug, and in other cases it may mean decreasing or eliminating the medication.

An individual's physical condition also makes a difference. People who attend exercise classes learn how to strengthen their muscles. This also leads to improved balance and in return a decreased risk of falling.

The Falls Prevention Task Force works hard to raise awareness of resources in the community to reduce the stigma surrounding falls. As Dr. Kosseff said, people should not be afraid to report their falls. There is plenty of support to help keep people independent and in their homes longer.

"We've teamed up with the United Way and now anyone can dial 2-1-1 and reach our prevention help line," says Dr. Kosseff. "That help line will have information on falls and fall prevention for anyone who's concerned about the issue. More importantly, this phone number allows individuals to schedule an in-home risk assessment, so all factors can be evaluated."

Armed with this information, Dr. Kosseff says the number of falls in the community can be greatly decreased.

"Awareness is going to have a huge impact on our community and mean a better quality of life for many more people," says Kosseff.

One Call to Prevent the Fall

Dane County residents can dial 2-1-1 to be connected to an expert on falls and fall prevention. The expert will have information on risks and can help schedule an in-home risk assessment to keep people in their homes and independent as long as possible.

Falls by the Numbers

15,802 - the number of people who died nationwide in 2005 from falling

5.8 million - the number of people who fell in 2006

1.8 million - the number of people who visited a doctor because of falling

Online Help Available

To learn more about the health issues that affect seniors, visit www.stmarysmadison.com, click on "Health & Wellness Information" and then "Senior's."