University of Pittsburgh study shows program can reduce falls for older adults

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A low-cost, low-tech program is reducing falls in elderly persons by 17 percent, according to a new study released Thursday by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Researchers led by Steven Albert followed nearly 2,000 elderly residents in 2010 and 2011 to gauge the effectiveness of Healthy Steps for Older Adults, a program run by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging.

The average age of participants was 75.4 years.

“There is a high prevalence of falls among people 65 and older that increases with age, as does the inability to get up after a fall,” said Mr. Albert, a Ph.D. who is chairman of the department of behavioral and community health sciences. “A challenge for public health officials is to decrease the risk of falls without encouraging reduced physical activity. Our research shows that the Healthy Steps for Older Adults program is a successful tool to help reduce falls.”

PG graphic: Checklist to help prevent falls at home
(Click image for larger version)

One in three adults aged 65 and older falls each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That agency and the National Institutes of Health gave Pitt $1.5 million for the falls prevention study.

The cost of fall injuries will reach $67.7 billion by 2020, according to the CDC.

“We recognize we do not have to accept falls,” said Mr. Albert, 58, because falls are not a normal part of aging. Though pleased with the 17 percent reduction in falls, he suggested “we can always build a better mousetrap. We can nudge people a little more.”

The state allocated just $1.2 million to run Healthy Steps in 2010 and 2011. The state trains providers in county Area Agencies on Aging to offer the program at senior centers, which are reimbursed $70 for each participant. The sessions are free for people 50 and older.

More programs could be helpful, the study suggests. Since 2007, 32,000 Pennsylvanians have completed the Healthy Steps program. There are 4.5 million Pennsylvanians over the age of 50.

The program screens people to determine their risk of falling. They are taught prevention tips, including modifying their home to eliminate loose throw rugs and add bannisters, grab bars and better lighting. Some are encouraged to consult their physicians and pharmacists for further help, including discussing eliminating or changing prescriptions that have “dizziness” or “falling” as known side effects.

The study found that among those who were told they were at high risk for falls, 21.5 percent followed up with physicians, 75 percent conducted home safety assessments and 33 percent reduced home hazards.

Though it’s too early to judge the impact of the study, Mr. Albert was in San Diego Thursday to present study results to the American Society on Aging. Accompanying him is Lois Shelton, a registered nurse who is state coordinator of PrimeTime Health, Pennsylvania’s health promotion program.

“Primary Prevention of Falls: Effectiveness of a Statewide Program” will be published in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health, now available online.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-722-0087. First Published March 13, 2014 4:50 PM

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