In Canada, falls are the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations for seniors. In BC, 200,000 seniors fall at least once per year and after a senior falls, they have two to three times more chances of falling again within that year.
This leads to more than 10,000 hospitalizations, 800 deaths and $195 million in health care costs for BC.
Falls are preventable. A nutritious diet helps prevent falls in seniors.
One third of older Canadians are at increased risk of poor nutrition, which contributes to muscle weakness, poor balance and weak bones. These situations lead to falls and fractures. It is also estimated that 1.4 million Canadians have osteoporosis (a chronic disease that causes brittle and weak bones) and two million are at risk for developing this debilitating bone disease.
Lifestyle, including food and fluid intake can make a difference in seniors’ health, risk of falling and helping to prevent breaking bones.
Factors such as eating alone, lack of support with shopping/cooking and limited access to affordable transportation are real causes of malnutrition among seniors. In addition, illness can affect food intake and will contribute to poor nutritional status.
Important factors for seniors’ nutrition, include adequate daily protein, vitamin D and calcium. Many seniors may have anemia (low iron and/or vitamin B12) and not drink enough fluids.
In general, older adults need more protein than younger adults. Enough energy from protein-rich foods is required to support good health, maintain lean muscle mass, recover from illness and stay independent longer. Low appetite and food intake may be factors that affect overall amount of dietary protein consumed and contribute to reduced lean muscle and increase risk of falls.
Foods such as lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs, nuts, seeds and dairy products all offer good levels of protein in the diet.
Approximately a quarter of Canadian seniors have a vitamin D deficiency which leads to muscle weakness, poor balance and more frequent falls and fractures among seniors.
There are many reasons for lack of sufficient vitamin D. It’s the sunshine vitamin, and as people age, they do not convert the hormone as readily into vitamin D (from their skin after sun exposure).
In the northern hemisphere, such as Canada (from October to April), the sun is not at an angle for skin synthesis for vitamin D. In addition, it’s difficult to get the daily requirement in diet, since there are very few foods/ fluids that have vitamin D.
Supplementation of 1000 IU of vitamin D is shown to help reduce risk of falls and fractures.
Calcium is a bone building mineral that is another important factor in fall and fracture risk for seniors. Calcium and vitamin D are closely intertwined.
Adequate vitamin D status helps the stomach absorb calcium to help strengthen bones.
Older adults who have muscle weakness, dizziness and fatigue should be checked for anemia (low iron and/or vitamin B12). Anemia can contribute to falls and fractures.
Adequate hydration is also a consideration to help prevent falls in seniors. Many older people may lack a sense of thirst, have decreased kidney function or consciously restrict fluids due to lack of bladder control. Reduced fluid intake may affect blood pressure and cause dizziness upon standing and be a fall risk.
For women, approximately nine cups of fluids and 12 cups for men will help maintain adequate hydration.
In Port Alberni, there’s a new seniors program available to help people with non-medical supports in their home, called, “Better At Home”, through the United Way. Assistance, such as grocery shopping help and transportation to appointments are some of the specific services that can be accessed through this new program to help seniors remain independent in their own home longer.
Along with healthy eating, daily activity will influence seniors’ physical health, including muscle and bone strength. Weight bearing exercise, such as walking, and even a small amount of weightlifting will help keep bones strong, plus maintain lean muscle tissue, which contributes to a strong immune system.
There are many fitness programs available in Port Alberni for seniors through Parks and Recreation, sports groups, plus the Sunshine Club, in addition to the great outdoors for physical activity.
Mounting evidence demonstrates that healthy eating and exercise among seniors may influence risk of falls which helps contribute to strong public health system and save health care dollars.
For more information about “Better At Home” call 778 419-3000 or go online to www.betterathome.ca.
Sandra Gentleman, RD, is an Alberni Valley-based registered dietitian and steward of Canal Beach.