New Research Indicates Unexpected Cause of Senior Falls (It’s Not Clumsiness!)


Most of us know that falls are a huge risk to the aging population. As we watch our parents and grandparents mature (or perhaps even in ourselves), the unsteady gait is cause for concern. Moving from one floor texture to another can be taxing. Stairs, slippery walkways, or obstacles are nothing short of perilous, and most modern prevention advice involves exercises to stay agile. Despite this, the CDC reports that a senior citizen dies every 20 minutes due to fall-related complications, and emergency rooms treat 2.5 million seniors for injuries caused by falls each year. However, new research indicates that general stiffness and clumsiness, which can be aided by agility exercises, is not the reason why many seniors fall.

Infections (Even in the Early Stages) Can Cause Falls

In Boston, an infectious disease specialist with a hunch linked infections and falls together. Dr. Farrin Manian, a visiting associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and an inpatient clinician educator in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, decided research on the matter needed to be conducted.  “Over the years, I’ve been struck by the fact that some of the more serious infections I treated were in people who came to the hospital because they fell,” Manian explained. The doctor and his team looked into the records of 161 patients to see how strong the correlation was between infections and falls. Though the research should be considered preliminary, as the group of patients involved is small, the results are incredibly compelling.

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Nearly Half the People Seeking Treatment After a Fall had an Infection

The researchers discovered that 45.3% of the people who received treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital after a fall had some type of infection.

  • 2% suffered from urinary tract infections
  • 1% had respiratory tract infections
  • 2% presented with endocarditis

Approximately 40% of Patients Did Not Show Clear Signs of Infection

Interestingly, two out of every five patients involved in the study under respite care, either had no symptoms of infection, or had just one. Clinicians generally look for things like fever, weakness, lethargy, rapid heart rate, and abnormal white blood cell count to indicate an underlying problem. When these things aren’t present, it’s easy for a doctor or nurse to overlook infection as a possible cause.

One-Third of Falls Were Directly Caused By Infection

Researchers did their best to be objective when examining the data, so they ruled out any fall that could have been caused by a mechanical issue, such as tripping over a rug, even if the individual had an infection. The final numbers showed that about one-third of falls were the direct result of the infection. Because blood pressure drops when a person’s body is fighting an infection, dizziness and disorientation occurs, increasing the risk of falling. It’s also believed that infection is a contributing factor in a significant number of those ruled as mechanical.

Those Who Fall are Advised to Seek Medical Help

Manian pointed out that the people involved in the study went to the hospital specifically because of their falls, not because of their illness or infection. This means that the injuries caused by the fall tended to be more severe. It also strongly suggests that those who are only mildly injured by falls, or who feel fine afterwards, could likely be dealing with the early stages of an infection, which will progress if left untreated. Those who fall, as well as their caretakers, should be vigilant in watching for signs of an infection, and considering whether an infection could have contributed to the fall.

Preventing Falls

People of all ages who are aware an infection is present should limit their movement to minimize the risk of falling, and should also seek medical attention. Aside from this, common prevention tips include:

  • Exercising/ staying active
  • Removing hazards
  • Installing rails or grab bars around the home
  • Increasing lighting around the house
  • Following up with regular eye exams
  • Scheduling wellness exams at doctor-recommended intervals
  • Wearing footwear with good traction

Falls aren’t just dangerous- they can be deadly. Although fractures are one of the most-likely complications, traumatic brain injury is also common, and it’s the leading cause of death. In this particular study, 29 people (18%) did not survive their injuries. Anyone can fall, though seniors are more likely to have serious injuries as a result. Take preventative steps to minimize the risk.

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