MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin ranks worst in the nation for deadly falls.
Numbers from the Centers of Disease Control say Wisconsin's death rate for falls is 143 per 100,000. The next closest state is Vermont at 123 people per 100,000.
"It's not just the injury itself, it's the complications that snowball as a result of those injuries," Dr. Marc de Moya, Chief of Trauma Surgery at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin said. "That could be anything from pneumonia to a clot in your lungs, inability to mobilize yourself very well so you're at risk of another fall happening."
Dr. de Moya says they see roughly 1,200 falls each year at the Froedtert's Adult Level I Trauma Center, with about 20 percent of those patients being elderly.
"Looking at patients who fall from a standing position, they are at risk of developing complications," de Moya said. "From ground level falls, we see broken hips, they fall on their sides, they fall on an outstretched hand and we see wrist fractures, broken humeri. As you get older, your bones are just more brittle.Most of the time, they're not immediately fatal."
That's what happened with Steve Sedgwick's elderly father. After falling in the middle of the night, he broke his hip. Ten days later, he died.
"My father had a very bad fall toward the end of his life," Sedgwick said. "That was certainly a significant factor."
It's a growing problem across the country. At Concordia University, they say an older adult dies every 20 minutes from a fall. So Wisconsin being at the top of the list is troubling. Sedgwick met with their fall risk assessment team on Tuesday.
"No one thing causes a fall," Mike McKinnis, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at Concordia University said. "Our population is aging at a rate a little higher than other states. A lot of people think about winter. Like, oh it must be the slipping and fall. There is some truth to that, however, states like Michigan and Illinois don't have the rate of falls we do."
While winter weather seems like the obvious factor, McKinnis says there has to be something more because other cold weather states don't have the same problem. According to the CDC, Michigan's fatal fall rates are at 53 people per 100,000 and Illinois is only 48 people per 100,000.
McKinnis is one of many people involved in a comprehensive fall risk analysis group at Concordia. Along with the group, Fresh Meals on Wheels of Sheboygan, they go into two to three homes per month to give a thorough assessment of possible problem areas in the home.
Concordia's tips include the following:
- Pick up clutter; throw rugs, piles of clothes and other debris are prime tripping hazards inside the home.
- Take it easy; Concordia says lots of falls happen after sitting for long periods of time. Legs and feet can feel numb, causing instability and, if you feel dizzy, don't push it. Sit back down.
- Start from the ground up; check your shoes. Make sure there is enough tread on the sole and the fit is right. The front should be roomy and comfortable but also needs to fit well. No slippers or crocs!
- Bathroom a trouble spot. Keep things dry and clean but also watch for colors. McKinnis says white on white can be difficult to see. A handle to grab onto is great, but hard to see if it's the same color as the wall tile. So having contrasting colors can help.
- Keep walkways clear of debris and moisture. Snow, ice and wet leaves can be extremely slippery.
- Clothing shouldn't be too lose, as it could catch on door knobs or banisters.
- Keep your phone nearby. Should you fall, you want to have the ability to call someone right away.
- Check your medications with your doctor. Interactions could cause more dizziness and make you more susceptible to falls.
"A lot of times, people don't actually realize medications can be a reason for falls," Travis Suss, Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Concordia University said. "Could these two medications work together and cause there to be higher levels in the body and the side effect of that medication is to lower blood pressure, therefore putting you at risk for falls, creating side effects like dizziness."
Suss says it's important to check with your doctor to make sure it's still important for you to be on medications you may have started years ago. Also, sharing any over the counter or herbal supplements you're taking in addition to prescription medications. He says, they may have interactions you don't know about.
"Certain medications maybe on their own wouldn't necessarily put you at that much more risk," Suss said. "But thinking of drug interactions, another thing in my role as a pharmacist is always looking at drug to drug interactions."
Aside from cleaning up things in your life, one more tip is staying physically fit. Dr. de Moya says being in shape can be a great preventative measure in case a fall situation comes up.
"Getting people better flexibility, improving balance and coordination," de Moya said. "Things like tai chi are fantastic for the older folks because it doesn't stress joints. Increasing strength for daily activity like going to the grocery store or going to the bank. Things like that."
For more information on fall prevention, you can visit the Wisconsin Healthy Aging website.