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Picture this. Your loved one, an elderly person, has had a fall at home, at the mall, or anyplace else. Let’s not consider the severity of the fall for now, but what is the first thing you would think? What is the first thing you would do? Most people would simply assume that the senior is having some problems with mental health or eyesight, hence impairing their ability to coordinate balance and movement. Some may also assume that the senior simply had a moment of clumsiness and just offer tips to prevent falls at home. These are not impossible conclusions. They do make perfect sense, but it is important to know that there can be other underlying reasons for the fall. Simply jumping to conclusions and attributing the fall to mental health problems could result in the underlying health issue not being picked up on, and left to worsen over time.
The Massachusetts General Hospital Study
Dr. Farrin Manian is a clinician educator in the Massachusetts General Hospital’s division of general medicine in Boston. He is also the principal investigator of a Massachusetts General Hospital study regarding infections and falls in the elderly.
The study involved 161 patients who were treated in the Massachusetts General Hospital emergency room for a fall. All 161 of these patients were later also diagnosed with an underlying infection. Of these, 44.1 percent had a urinary tract infection, 39.8 percent had a bloodstream infection, 23 percent had a respiratory infection and 5.6 percent had an infection of the heart valve.
Initially, experts did not suspect an underlying infection in more than 40 percent of the patients. This may be due to the fact that many of these patients only had one or no common signs of an infection (common signs of an infection include a rapid heart rate, an abnormal white blood cell count, and fever). As such, it is apparent that it is highly likely for the underlying infection to be missed if family members or caregivers do not know what exactly to look out for when dealing with an elderly person who has had a fall.
Other research has also suggested that between 20 percent and 45 percent of falls are caused by infection, although this is often not picked up on. This is because most relatives, health care workers and caregivers don’t associate falls with possible illness. Instead, most people would attribute it to clumsiness or other mental health issues.
How exactly does an infection cause falls?
Now you may be wondering how exactly an infection could lead to a fall. There may not seem like there is an obvious link between the two, but the explanation is simple really. According to researchers involved in the Massachusetts General Hospital study, infections can lower blood pressure. This will result in feelings of lightheadedness and dizziness, which then increase the person’s risk of falling. This effect is worsened in elderly persons because illnesses can also increase confusion in older people, especially in the cases of those who are also suffering from dementia.
According to Dr. Farrin Manian, he was inspired to conduct the study because he had realized, over the years, that some of the more serious infections he had treated were in people who had come to the hospital because they had had a fall.
Prevalence of falls amongst elderly persons
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2.5 million elderly persons end up in American emergency rooms each year as a result of falls. Of these 2.5 million, less than a third require hospitalization consequentially. The death rate of these falls has also increased between the years 2004 and 2013, from 41 deaths per year for every 100, 000 people to 57 deaths every year for the same number of people.
With such a large number of cases of elderly falls every year, it is important to be informed that there could be a huge range of causes behind the falling – it might not just be a bout of clumsiness or failing eyesight.
Is there anything I can do to help my loved ones?
Of course, it is important to maintain regular health checkups to ensure that no infections or other health problems go unnoticed. This can also prevent any falling due to undetected bouts of infection, which is important because serious injuries such as fractures may result when elderly persons take a fall.
However, if your loved one has already had a fall, it is essential that you don’t jump straight to conclusions and assume that the fall was due to clumsiness, eyesight problems, mental health problems, or other reasons. It is important that you consider all possibilities, and get a full health checkup conducted if possible, so as to detect any underlying health problems. It would also be useful to ask the senior how he or she felt before the accident. If he or she reports feeling lightheaded or dizzy before the fall, it is possible that there is an infection, which should be checked out right away before things get worse.
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