As winter tightens its grip, and our sidewalks and streets turn icy, it is worth remembering how falls pose a threat to seniors.

As a chiropractor, I see the impact of the damage of falls daily, the physical and financial costs to one of our most vulnerable populations — seniors.

Consider these sobering statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control:

* One out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year.

* 82 percent of deaths from falls in 2008 were among people 65 and older.

* Falls are the leading cause of injury and death among adults older than 65.

* Falls are the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.

* 2.2 million nonfatal fall injuries among older adults were treated in emergency departments in 2009, and more than 581,000 of these patients were hospitalized.

* Direct medical costs of falls totaled more than $19 billion in 2000. This equals $28.2 billion in 2010 dollars — a significant figure in this era of concern over spiraling health care costs.

Seniors are especially susceptible to falls and resulting serious injury because of bone loss, sight impairment, loss of strength and flexibility and other aspects of aging.

There are actions, however, that seniors can take to lessen the likelihood of falls and to mitigate their aftermath.

For starters, exercise is at the top of the list, particularly leg exercise. Leg strength is a foundation of balance, and good balance means fewer falls.

It can be a challenge to get out to exercise during our Maine winters, but taking the time to exercise regularly can pay off. Those who need a place to exercise during cold weather can call their town’s recreation department, which often can provide a host of options.

Another way to increase muscle strength while limiting stress on joints involves a technique called controlled whole body vibration, in which a machine transmits energy to the body, forcing muscles to contract and relax dozens of times each second.

Research at the University of Liege, Belgium, indicates that whole body vibration exercises can improve balance in seniors and reduce bone loss.

Health care professionals can be invaluable to addressing fall dangers. People who experience dizziness, drowsiness or lack of balance, should let their doctor know. Also, medications may have side effects that affect balance. A pharmacist can provide information about the impact of medication on balance.

Yearly eye exams ensure that hazards can be seen and avoided. Keeping eyeglass prescriptions current is also a smart choice.

Proper nutrition also plays a key role, especially for people suffering from calcium deficiency. Adequate calcium and vitamin D can help protect bones from fall injuries.

In addition to healthy living practices, everyday surroundings offer numerous pitfalls. To ensure that a home is as safe as possible, make sure that:

* area rugs are anchored.

* railings are secure and stairways adequately lighted.

* shower and bathtub bottoms are non-slip and secure grab bars are installed.

We’ve all heard the warnings about slipping in the bathroom — with good reason. About 234,000 people ages 15 and older were treated in U.S. emergency departments in 2008 for injuries suffered in bathrooms, and 80 percent of these injuries were caused by falls, according to the CDC.

Maine’s long winters offer additional challenges. Having plenty of salt and sand on hand to melt snow, along with solid railings for steps, go a long way to cutting down on treacherous walkways.

Additionally, strap-on cleats for shoes offer superior traction.

And remember, it’s worth a talk with a doctor before launching into a season of snow shoveling (with a well-designed, ergonomically sound shovel, of course).

The holidays can be a good time to talk to the seniors in our lives to make sure they do everything they can to protect themselves against the risk of fall and injury.

In the end, cutting down on the likelihood of a fall is simply taking the time to be safe in surroundings and in maintaining a healthy life style. The savings in pain and money are worth the effort.

Dr. Andre Nadeau owns and runs Nadeau Chiropractic and Wellness Center, Augusta, which offers a holistic approach to health care. He is the incoming president of the Maine Chiropractic Association.

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