Aging Without Boundaries: Overcoming physical challenges

Image: Aging Without Boundaries: Overcoming physical challenges

We're celebrating Seniors' Month in Ontario with a series of blogs written by guests from the community!

The series will recognize seniors and point out ways that our community members can age without boundaries and live happy, healthy lives well into their later years! The first blog in our series will identify ways for seniors to overcome physical challenges and changes to their bodies as they grow older!

2 ways to reduce fall risk in seniors that you’ve never been told

By: Dr. Ryan Davey, Director of Research and Operations, Toronto Physiotherapy

As you or your loved one age, you/they will likely experience physical changes to the body that will challenge your/their mobility and independence. These physical changes will also likely make you or your loved one more susceptible to falls. It is commonly reported that a senior citizen living in North America has a one in three chance of having at least one fall per year. Given that falls are a leading cause of injury and mortality in seniors, the significance of these falls is enormous.

In addition to everything we’ve already been told about fall prevention, the latest research suggests two new strategies to help stay vertical – and there’s a good chance you or your loved one have never heard of them.

To understand these new strategies for fall prevention, it is important to first understand why seniors fall.

The risk of falling naturally increases with age. Everyone ages, and aging is accompanied by physiological changes that will increase you or your loved ones likelihood of falling. A decrease in muscle mass and reduced bone density are two contributing factors. Such physical atrophy will reduce you or your loved one’s stability when standing and in motion, and also decrease how fast and sufficiently you/they can respond to regain a loss of balance. Neural atrophy will play an equally important role as you or your loved one age. Loss of sensory neurons that help you/they maintain positional awareness of your/their body in the environment, and loss of motor neurons responsible for voluntary (and involuntary) control of your/their body, can conspire to increase risk of falling.

Here are somecommon strategies to remain vertical that you or your loved one have likely heard before:

  1. Exercise regularly to help improve your/their strength and balance. In particular, lower-body strength training.
  2. Clear your/their dwelling of obstructions that could make you/them fall. Area rugs and carpets, cords, unnecessary furniture, and so on. Remove snow and ice.
  3. Turn on your/their lights more often, and add lighting in areas that are dimly lit.
  4. Use guard rails, shower seats, grab bars, non-slip treads and mats, and other physical aids to prevent falls.
  5. Wear good footwear
  6. Talk to your/their doctor about your/their fall risk. Discuss your/their medications to identify any that may have the potential to make you/them dizzy or light-headed.
  7. Have your/their vision checked and wear glasses as prescribed.

Thankfully, prevention doesn’t need to end with these tried and true strategies. The latest research into how and why seniors fall is providing exciting new strategies to tackle the problem:

2 new ways to reduce fall risk that you/your loved one have likely never heard before:

1. Core Strengthening

New research says that one of the reasons why seniors tend to fall more frequently is that, as aging takes place, spatial perception in the environment changes. Studies show that among other things, seniors have a tendency to significantly overestimate their safe reach distance. When these errors are made, the body’s ability to regain balance quickly is what will prevent a fall from occurring. This has more to do with core strength than you or your loved one may realize. Your core is the group of muscles that make up the lower portion of your trunk, which includes your abdominals, buttocks, low back and pelvic floor muscles. The core helps to maintain stability and thereby better control the movements of your upper and lower limbs.

For this reason, the core muscles are the primary set of muscles responsible for recovering from errors in spatial perception and loss of balance. Studies in seniors suggest that core strengthening could offer major improvements in movement patterns and physical function in day to day life, including fall prevention. Since seniors are susceptible to mistakes such as overestimating their safe reach distance, a strong core could make a significant difference in you or your loved one’s recovery time and prevent you/them from falling.

How can you or your loved one train and strengthen your/their core? Thanks to the ever-increasing demands on athletes to perform better, there are common core strength training exercises and routines that can be found online, or better yet, from a personal trainer or physiotherapist that can show you or your loved one safe and effective strategies suitable for your/their physical condition. Pilates is another common strength training method that targets core muscle development.

2. Cognitive therapy

When people think of physical therapy, they often forget that the brain is one of the most important body parts. Part of being physically healthy is having a strong mind. New research suggests that as you or your loved one age, your/their mind will naturally begin to compensate for the body’s diminished ability to prevent falls. The mind will do this by increasing attention and awareness, and by recruiting other cognitive functions referred to collectively as the brain’s “executive function”.

So it stands to reason that with diminished cognitive function, you/your loved one may not be able to compensate sufficiently for muscular, bone and neural atrophy, resulting in more falls. The research supports this. In fact, in one study of healthy individuals with no signs of dementia, scores in cognitive tests were found to predict which seniors would fall up to five years later!

Cognitive therapy can be useful in strengthening the mind and helping to prevent decline in cognitive function. Cognitive therapy includes such things as ‘dual-task’ training – literally doing two things at once, like walking while talking, walking while performing mental games or doing puzzles, etc.

    You or your loved one should take advantage of your/their body’s normal defences against falling by strengthening the two incredible tools we all have – the mind and the ‘core’. These may be two of the best methods for keeping you/your loved one upright, and living a healthy and happy life!

    Dr. Ryan Davey is a scientist with specialization in Regenerative Medicine and Biomedical Engineering. In addition to being a founder and director of Toronto Physiotherapy, Ryan is also active in the field of medical diagnostics.

    Toronto Physiotherapy: