Older adults who are at high risk of falls should have physical therapy and take vitamin D supplements to reduce their chance of injury, according to new recommendations from a government-backed panel.
Falling is "a common problem and it's often overlooked because doctors may not be aware of their patients' fall risk," said Dr. Albert Siu, a professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and vice co-chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which came out with the recommendations on Monday.
"By asking about falls and by observing the patient in terms of walking, we might be able to asses who might be at risk and who can benefit from preventive measures," Siu told Reuters Health.
Falls are a leading cause of injury among older adults, he added.
According to the new guidelines, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 30 to 40 percent of people age 65 or older fall at least once each year, and five to 10 percent of them will have a serious injury such as a hip fracture.
The USPSTF makes recommendations on a range of prevention and treatment issues, and its guidelines on reducing the risk of falls in the elderly had not been updated since 1996.
There has been considerable research done since then on what seniors can do to prevent falls -- and what doesn't seem to work. For instance, correcting vision, wearing a shield called a hip protector, stopping some medications or taking protein supplements do not reduce the risk that someone will have a fall, according to the guidelines.
Vitamin D, exercise and physical therapy, however, are moderately beneficial, reducing the risk of falling by 13 to 17 percent (see Reuters Health report of December 21, 2010).
A 13 percent reduction in falls would mean that instead of 30 out of 100 older adults having a fall each year, that number would drop to 26.
In the USPSTF's review of the evidence on vitamin D, the panel found that to prevent one elderly person from falling, 10 would have to take vitamin D supplements.
Siu said the usual dose is 800 international units (IUs) per day, and studies suggest people should take vitamin D for one year to see any benefit.
For exercise or physical therapy, one person would be spared a fall among every 16 people who participate in a program for 12 weeks.
Siu said there's not one particular exercise regimen that works best for preventing falls, and that people should talk to their doctors about finding an exercise or physical therapy program they'll stick to over the long run.
"I know from experience, if you recommend something someone had very little interest in, it's not going to get done," he said.
Siu said doctors can pick out patients who are at a higher risk of falling by informal assessments, such as watching how steady they are on their feet and asking them whether they've had a fall recently.
Physicians can also use a more formal test that includes timing how quickly people can get up from a chair, walk a few paces and return to the same spot.
The USPSTF recommends against more detailed assessments of these higher risk patients, such as evaluating their balance and if their homes have tripping hazards.
There seems to be only a minor benefit from doing an in-depth examination of risks and how to manage them, according to Siu -- and such an undertaking should be reserved for just those patients that a doctor feels would truly benefit, rather than widely applied to all patients at risk of falling.