By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Many of us, once we hit 50, start falling. Some of us start falling even sooner. I was one of those people who went wobbly early. Around age 42, I found myself stumbling. I fell on vacation. I fell twice walking around town. All of this has made me wonder: why is it that we start falling at a certain age? Why do we tend to fall more on vacation? And most importantly, what can we do to stop falling down?
The Age of Stumbling
The act of standing upright and the act of walking are not as simple as they seem. We humans just have such remarkable bodies that we never need to stop to think about the many, different complex actions that go into standing and walking.
Here are a few of the minute actions going on when you decide to stand.
All of this happens in the space of seconds. Now add walking to the mix and you can see why falling happens so easily.
Women Fall More Than Men
A Canadian study called the Canadian Community Health Survey, Cycle 2.1, found that 46 out of a 1000 women between the ages of 65 and 69 falls each year, while only 22 out of 1000 men in this age group falls. For every age range, women fall more than men. By the time we are 75, 77 out of 1000 women will suffer a fall while only 50 out of 1000 men will.
That's Canada --- we in the US fall even more. In the US, falls are the most common cause of fatal injuries in the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
We Fall More When It's Colder
We fall more when it's cold. Scientists believe that the reason may be that our reaction times slow when it's colder. Literally, the feet and legs don't get the message from the brain as quickly.
We Fall Outside More Than Inside
Most falls, 56% in fact, occur outside. Why is this so?
We fall more outside because we are less familiar with the terrain. You think that all of your thinking is done in your brain and in a sense it is. But in a sense, your body also thinks.
Remember when you first learned how to drive. You had to think hard and concentrate just to drive straight and stay in your lane. Over time, you stopped thinking, consciously at least, and your automatic brain took over. You then could drive "without thinking".
The same thing happens when you walk around your house. Once you've done it many hundreds of times, you no longer have to "think" about adjusting your balance because the floor in the living room is slightly slanted in that place near the window.
Everything changes when you go outside. The world outside is not as familiar to you. If you're not paying attention, you can easily stumble.
This is the reason we stumble more on vacation. Unfamiliar surroundings induce falls. The Canadian study observed that people in nursing homes fall more on the first day after they are moved to a new room.
How to Lower Your Risk of Falling
To lower your risk of falling, you have to avoid what physiologist call "deconditioning". Deconditioning means loss of physical capabilities, however slight. Deconditioning can happen at any age.
For example, in 1966 a famous study of the effects of bed rest on healthy, young 20 year old men was conducted in Dallas. Called the Dallas Bed Rest and Training Study, the experiment found that physical conditioning declines rapidly once you are put on bed rest. In fact, the 5 young, healthy 20 year old men men who were put on bed rest had the oxygen uptake characteristics f 50 year old men, after just 3 weeks of bed rest.
The same decline happens to you if you are sedentary. You literally age your musculature, heart function and mental capacities when you sit too long doing nothing with your body.
We need to use our muscles regularly to maintain conditioning. Physiologists do not agree on how much exercise is optimal. But here is a guideline. We should each get 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise each week, according to thee 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
That works out to about 20 minutes a day of brisk walking or 10 minutes a day of vigorous exercise.
You should also add weight training. Two easy ways to add weight training is to just take the stairs and to carry grocery bags. Stair climbing works your quadriceps and buttocks, the largest muscles in your body. Stair climbing also helps condition your heart.
Finally, you really have to get outside. Walking in the fresh air, in the park, on the sidewalks, having to avoid that hole, that dip in the sidewalk, that rude teenager who would otherwise barrel right into you ---all these things keep your body and mind sharp, and help you avoid falls.
Improve Your Balance By Standing on One Leg
By the time we reach 80, fewer than 1% of us can stand on one leg for more than 30 seconds, according to joint study from the University of Carolina and the Southeastern Regional Rehabilitation Center in 1983.
The old adage really is true: use it or lose it. Practice sanding on one leg every day. We each have a better and a weaker leg, in terms of balance.
Practice standing on each leg. Over time, you will see a steady but sure improvement in your ability to find your balance, even on unfamiliar terrain. Standing on one leg also actually improves your ability to think.