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Go head over heels for fall prevention

Lately, I'm obsessed with how to prevent falls in aging populations. One in 3 older adults falls each year, and these falls cost this nation almost $23 billion a year in health care costs. I believe if we all did a few things differently in terms of household safety, we could change the world — and have an impact on health care costs.

Let's get personal. Last year, 46 people over age 65 in Jackson County took a fall that led to their deaths. Yes, 46 of your friends and mine fell and had a resulting fracture or head trauma or both, and soon after (days, weeks, months), these people died. These were avoidable deaths in many cases.

Hundreds of others fell and did not die, but were hospitalized. They then went into rehabilitation centers and then to nursing homes — often becoming bed-bound or permanent wheelchair users.

These fine folks crashed going down steps without railings. They fell off ladders and stepstools and out of recliners when transferring from a wheelchair or a walker. They tripped on extension cords and their own slippered feet.

Many people fall because they insist on keeping "throw rugs" on their linoleum or wooden — or even carpeted — floors. Now you know; throw rugs are highly dangerous home décor.

Folks fall because their medications (newly prescribed or just plain too many) result in confusion and disorientation, creating balance issues. Many fall because they simply could not get used to wearing trifocals; it affects depth perception and causes us to misjudge the height of a curb or step.

I hear countless stories about how it happens "in a flash." Life "changed forever." The fall may not be fatal, but there's always pain, debilitation, immobility and depression. And there's the fear of falling again, which can lead to even more immobility.

There are 12 safety considerations that prevent us from falling. Things like maintaining a clear path to the bathroom and wearing shoes that have good support and non-stick soles. You can acquire a compelling, free poster that contains all these suggestions by calling 1-866-718-BONE. Ask for several and give them to friends.

I'm fortunate to have three OHSU/SOU nursing students working with me on preventing falls and fractures and averting fall-related deaths in aging adults. These are smart and lovely young women who now share my obsession for fall prevention. The students, Emily, Jasmine and Keea, have done a study on falls in aging adults and will join me in talking about it at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23, on Oregon State University Extension's Healthy Living program (Rogue Valley Community Television channels 9 and 14; www.roguetv.org).

We have actually surfaced some new findings. For example, lack of enough vitamin D appears to lead to balance issues that may result in falls and fractures. Ask your doctor about that one. It comes from OHSU data and the work of geriatrician Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom.

The only tumble I want you to take is one where you fall head over heels in support of fall prevention.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.