People over the age of 85 are the fastest growing demographic group in the United States. And by 2050, two billion adults older than 65 will be living on this planet.
Among the many concerns of older adults is an excessive fear of falling, which is a serious condition that can lead to inactivity, disability—and falls.
Older adults fear falling more than robbery, financial stress, or health problems. About 10 percent report excessive fear, and at least 3 percent of community-dwelling older adults avoid leaving their homes or yards.
Most people who fear falling avoid some physical activities. This fear is a better predictor of decreased physical activity than age, perceived health, number of prescription medications, gender, or history of falls.
Fear of falling and less physical activity lead to disability, including decreased capacity to perform daily living activities such as bathing and shopping. Fearful individuals often slow their gait, widen their stance, and make other adjustments that badly affect their balance. They may experience other measures of physical decline as well.
Paradoxically, the fear of falling increases the risk of falls. It also increases the risk of having to enter a health care facility and the loss of independence. Those who had excessive fear but no falls over a two-year period increased their risk of entering a nursing home five-fold relative to those with low fear.Of older adults in one scientific study, 56 percent with high levels of fear fell again within the following year, while only 37 percent of those without fear did.
Although appropriate caution is healthy, avoiding too many activities puts you at risk. If you have a fear of falling or want to help a friend or loved one, try the strategies below. But don’t be too protective. You could end up reinforcing the fear and making things worse in the long run.
To improve your health and quality of life, ask your health care providers what else you can do and how to do it safely.
Julie Loebach Wetherell, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego