When falling leaves turn to falling snow and ice, older adults are more susceptible to injuries from falls.
‘Tis the season for freezing temperatures, howling winter winds and slippery conditions that can lead to falls for older Canadians, falls that can result in serious injuries and loss of independence.
According to data from the Canadian Institute of Health Information, 70% of all fall injury-related hospitalizations occur during January, February and March. This is just the tip of the falls iceberg as many other fall injuries are treated in doctor’s offices, walk-in clinics and emergency departments. Winter falls are especially common among older women (Campbell, Spears, Borrie and Fitzgerald, 1988).
In addition to obvious hazardous environmental conditions, the winter months bring with them unique characteristics and combinations of conditions that contribute to a higher risk of falling for seniors.
of all fall-related hospitalizations occur in the winter
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Older adults are particularly susceptible to hypothermia which can lead to dizziness, confusion, shallow breathing and a slow or irregular heartbeat, resulting in an increased risk of falling.
Sub-optimal vitamin D status
The reduced number of sunlight hours in winter can lead to lower vitamin D levels that reduce the muscle and bone strength necessary to deal with tougher walking conditions and minimize the chance of injury after a fall.
Bringing winter risks indoors
Winter boots can track snow indoors where it melts and can lead to a fall.
Reduced sense of touch
Age-related conditions such as poor circulation, arthritis and diabetes can cause a decreased sense of touch that can interfere with the ability to “feel” ground conditions through winter boots.
Visual acuity diminishes with age and older adults have more difficulty distinguishing hazardous patches of snowy or icy ground that can appear to be nothing more than varying shades of white and grey. In addition, average light levels are lower in the colder months, further impeding the ability to see risks and negotiate them safely.
Preventing winter falls
To reduce the chance of falling in winter, at-risk patients should take the following steps:
The best defence against falling when it’s snowy and icy outside is to wear boots that provide a good grip on the ground. It’s easier said than done; one study of winter footwear by the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute’s WinterLab found that only 8% of almost 100 pairs of “winter boots” met their minimum slip resistance standard using the MAA (Maximum Achievable Angle) testing method. Patients can find a ranking of the best winter footwear at www.ratemytreads.com.
Stay fit and active
When it’s cold outside, it’s tempting to stay indoors and hibernate. However, an older person’s inactivity can lead to a loss of muscle strength that may lead to a fall.
Eating well-balanced, nutritious meals and foods rich in Vitamin D and calcium will help prevent dry, tight skin and minimize loss of bone density.
Dress warmly in layers when outdoors and be sure to stay hydrated to help blood circulation reach extremities.
Older adults should avoid rushing and watch for hazards such as icy patches and uneven snow.
Seniors need to acknowledge the heightened risk they face in winter and think about how they would get help if they fall. Philips Lifeline’s new GoSafe mobile service is the perfect companion for older adults when they are facing the wilds of winter because it can call for help wherever your patient is located.* For seniors who are at home, HomeSafe or HomeSafe with AutoAlert can provide similar protection.
- BC Government News,Top ten tips for staying fall-free this winter, www.news.gov.bc.ca
- Tips for Staying Fall-Free This Winter, Centre for Hip Health and Mobility.
- 7 Winter Safety Tips for Seniors, www.care.com
* With GoSafe, coverage outside the home provided with sufficient access to/ coverage by the applicable third party wireless network. Certain limitations subject to third party cellular provider availability and coverage. Signal range may vary. Lifeline may not always be able to determine your location. GoSafe and AutoAlert do not detect 100% of falls. If able, users should always push their button when they need help.