This story was originally published by the San Luis Obispo Public Health Department

Falls in San Luis Obispo County

The Current Landscape & Future Need

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year millions of older Americans fall. Many of them are seriously injured, and some are disabled.  Many people who fall, even if they are not injured, become afraid of falling again. They restrict their everyday activities and withdraw and often become depressed. As they become less active they become weaker which increases their chances of falling a second time. 

"When I fell, my whole world changed.  All of a sudden I went from being the independent adult I'd been for the last 60 years to needing constant help for even the smallest of tasks."

- Kay Warren, SLO County resident

Falls in SLO County

Of the 3,585 traumatic injuries EMS transported to local hospitals in 2014, 62% of those injuries were fall related. Of those , 74% were for individuals ages 60 and older.This means that every day, on average, 5 seniors are taken to the emergency department with serious injuries due to falls.

Location of Falls

Falls are most common in the cities of San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, though many also come in from surrounding areas and rural, unincorporated parts of the county.

Falls were the leading cause of accidental death for persons over 70

There were 1,211 accidental deaths in SLO County between 2000-2010. Motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death in most age groups, however, persons between 40-49 died more of accidental poisonings, and for persons over the age of 70, fall related injuries or complications were the leading cause of death.

A Unique Community, with an aging population

San Luis Obispo County's high quality of life, moderate climate and stunning natural beauty leads many in California and across neighboring states to retire in this picturesque community.  This creates a unique environment which has a higher percentage of individuals aged 65+, and a smaller percentage of individuals under 18 years of age, compared to the State of California.

Why Do Older People Fall?

Intrinsic Risks (natural – within): cause 55% of fallsExtrinsic Risks (environment): cause 40% of fallsRisk Factors and Causes of falls are multi-factorial: environmental hazards, changes in medications, social setting, external demands (busy environment), balance and gait impairments, muscle weakness, slowed central processing, peripheral sensory loss, cognitive impairmentSource: SAFE: Central Valley Coalition.

An injurious fall in an older adult can be costly. The average cost of hospital-treated fall injury is estimated at $10,800 in direct medical care costs. Annual medicare costs for hip fractures are estimated to be $6.8 billion, with average hospital stays lasting 1 week and 25% of patients requiring nursing home care for a year or more.Source: National Council on Aging's State Policy Toolkit for Advancing Fall Prevention

A growing senior population means need and costs will likely increase. In California, the estimated number of seniors ages 85+ is expected to increase from 628,000 (2010) to 2.9 million (2050), while residents ages 60+ are expected to increase from 6.4 million (2010) to 14.6 million (2050). In San Luis Obispo County, residents ages 60+ are projected to climb from 60,281 (2010) to 102,016 (2050), making up 28% of the population (compared to 25% statewide).Source: CA Department of Finance Projections California Seniors 60+, 2010-2050

As the number of older adults in our state and county continue to grow, the prevention of falls becomes even more of a necessity to protecting the health of our community and extending the quality of our seniors' older years.With few services available in the region to address current needs and future demand, the occurrence of falls -- and their economic and public health impact within the community -- will likely rise.

How we can take action

While aging is an inevitable part of life, falling doesn't have to be. Through practical lifestyle adjustments, balance and strength-building classes, and community partnerships, the number of falls among seniors can be reduced substantially.

Primary preventionThe Public Health Department hopes to offer multi-session classes on fall prevention around the County at senior centers, through parks and recreation departments, mobile home parks, and other places where seniors congregate. Given that medications can impact balance, we would also focus on medication management, and would incorporate strengthening exercises into class sessions. 

Secondary preventionThe department will also work with discharge planners and medical providers at local hospitals to identify seniors who have fallen or are at high risk of falling, and conduct in-home assessments where potential risks are assessed and mitigated. Funding would also be pursued to purchase home aids that can help reduce risk, such as handrails or grab bars.

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