U-M: COVID pandemic may have increased fall risk for older adults

A woman climbs stairs in a stairwell. (Michigan Medicine)

ANN ARBOR – The risk of falling in older adults may have increased due changes in physical activity during the COVID pandemic, according to a new national poll by the University of Michigan.

More than a third of those polled between the ages of 50 and 80 said their physical activity decreased during the first 10 months of the pandemic. More than a quarter said they are now in worse physical condition than they were in prior to the pandemic.

Another finding of U-M’s National Poll on Healthy Aging was that many of them said they now have an increased fear of falling.

Research on falls suggests that fear of falling combined with reduced physical activity can increase the risk of falling in the future.

The poll leaders hope that better awareness of the issue could help motivate adults to get moving more, especially if the pandemic caused them to be less active.

Twenty-five percent of older adults polled said they experienced a fall in the first 10 months of the pandemic. Forty percent of those experienced more than one fall during the same period.

The poll also found that certain groups of older adults may need additional help to reduce fall risk and improve physical activity, including women, Black adults, those over 65 and older adults experiencing loneliness.

The poll, based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, received support from Michigan Medicine and AARP.

Conducted in January 2021, the poll received responses from more than adults aged 50 to 80 across the country.

“Many older adults fall each year, and the pandemic was no exception. Many falls result in at least a minor injury in this age group, and a third require medical attention,” assistant professor at the U-M School of Nursing and falls researcher who worked with the poll team, Geoffrey Hoffman, said in a release.

“Physical conditioning can make a major difference for maintaining independence, including avoiding a fall, but also how well someone reacts to and recovers from one. Focusing on prevention now, including physical health and activity but also home safety and social factors that can increase risk, is crucial.”

Each year, more than 32,000 older adults die from falls or injuries sustained during falls.

As the U.S. population ages, that number is expected to rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Poll director Preeti Malani said the report also shows the connection between lack of companionship and loneliness that increased during the pandemic might cause changes in fall risk, mobility and activity levels.

Those who reported a lack in companionship were at a higher risk of falling, according to the report.

“As life gets closer to normal, especially for the large percentage of older adults who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, health care providers and loved ones should encourage more interactions that involve safe physical activity,” Malani said in a release.

“We need to make up for lost time and get older adults on track, or back on track, with the kinds of movement and strengthening that can safeguard their independence by reducing their risk of falls or of major fall-related injuries. Even better if this happens in conjunction with social interaction.”

An additional finding of the poll was that 28% of older adults who sustained an injury from a fall during the pandemic either delayed or avoided proper medical care they needed at the time. Forty percent of respondents in this group said the pandemic was the reason they did not seek care.

“Falls are a significant health and safety concern for older adults,” senior vice president of research for AARP, Alison Bryant, said in a statement. “Thankfully, there are many ways you can reduce your risk of falling, including simple home modifications like using brighter light bulbs, removing throw rugs and making sure electrical cords are tucked out of the way.”

Read the full poll report here.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.