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Falls do not have to happen

As we age, certain things happen. I’ve accepted the fact that no matter how healthy one tries to be throughout life, many health-related problems are impossible to prevent.

We are diagnosed with chronic conditions like arthritis, develop age-related hearing loss or have severely compromised vision. Sometimes it’s all of the above and more. Research suggests that 80 percent of older adults have one chronic condition and 50 percent have two or more. We live longer, but not without malady.

Our aging health may be tied to lifestyle decisions (perhaps you overate throughout your adult life or smoked three packs a day until your mid-50s?). Maybe it’s linked to family health history (your father had cardiac issues and his father did too?). We try to manage the disease conditions we are given — good for us. But certain health-related problems do not have to be managed, they can be prevented. Falls and fractures don’t have to occur. They are preventable.

I’m very passionate about this. People who know me well and are reading this column are assuredly rolling their eyes upward and saying, “OK, here she goes again.” Yes, she does. Let’s start with the obvious. Falls can occur at any age, but risk increases with age.

For people who are older than 85, falling episodes are 70 times greater for women and 40 times greater for men (as compared to the 55-64 age group). Falls most frequently occur in bathrooms. When you fall off a toilet and hit your head on the toilet itself or the porcelain tub next to it or you slip in the shower while reaching for a nonexistent grab bar, the results are painful. Game-changing.

Think about it this way, how many elders do you know whose final weeks or months were spent in a hospital or long-term care facility because of an accident involving a fall? How many times has an aging friend experienced a “near miss” as they tried to navigate rough terrain or slipped on a loose throw rug? By the way, I think those small, easily rumpled cotton rugs are named “throw” or “scatter” because they do just that — throw you over and scatter/shatter bones. Especially if they are located in your bathroom.

One in four older adults fall. The most likely result is head injury or hip fracture. One in five elders who fractures a hip as the result of a fall dies within one year. A fall and accompanying fracture costs you, your insurer or society at large about $30,000 — possibly more. See why I’m passionate?

Ready for some practical solutions? Maybe you need a shower chair or a slightly taller “comfort height” toilet? Consider the installation of several grab bars around your tub and shower (never suction cup — use the real deal!).

The likelihood of falling is reduced if you exercise regularly. You can do it by walking at least 30 minutes daily or by taking tai chi classes. Yoga is another option.

Eliminating those throw-you-off bathroom rugs is the easiest thing to do — at minimum, buy a new one with better adhesive on the back. Think of it as an insurance policy.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@rbtrv.org.