10 Ways to Breakproof Your Bones

Wednesday, 16 Oct 2013 08:05 AM

By Charlotte Libov

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As we age, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s become major health concerns, but experts say there’s a more common, less-publicized menace that has a far greater effect on seniors’ lives.
 
“Older people falling and breaking their bones is becoming a huge worldwide epidemic, says Maureen McBeth, physical therapist and Cancer Care Program Manager at The Center for Restorative Therapies at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
 
In fact, a new report co-authored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, the World Health Organization, and the National University of Mexico says one in three women older than 50 suffer a bone fracture due to osteoporosis.
 
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About 9,500 Americans die directly from falls each year, but the death toll is actually much higher. Several more thousand die within six months, fading away after they fracture a hip.
 
Fatalities, however, are not the biggest impact of bone-breaking falls. Many hundreds of thousands of Americans are robbed of the ability to live independently after suffering at-home falls.
 
Half of older people who sustain a fall-related injury are discharged from a hospital to a nursing home.
 
The simple fear of falling can inhibit people from living fully. One-quarter of those over 75 say they restrict their activities because they are afraid of falling, according to statistics compiled by the Colorado State University Extension Service.
 
“This leads to their becoming sedentary, which brings with it a lot of negative effects, including cardiovascular problems,” says Ryan Duffy, a fitness expert who teaches tai chi and chi kong, a related movement program, to seniors in Richmond, Va.
 
“Practicing tai chi and chi kong increases people’s confidence, and also keeps them mobile and helps improve their balance,” he says. Good posture is the key not only to balance, but it also increases strength and can help relieve pain from problems like arthritis and sciatica, he notes.
 
One way to improve posture is to practice “mindfulness walking,” says Duffy. “As you walk, be aware of your posture, and how your weight shifts when you put one foot in front of the other.”
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“Balance is key,” agrees McBeth, who tests all her patients for balance by using this simple test: Stand in a corner two inches from the wall. Stand on one foot and put the other foot at hip level, like a stork might stand. You should be able to do this for more than 20-25 seconds. If you start to fall, lean on the wall for support.
 
 “Many people can’t do this, but they always come up with some excuse. Yet, when I question them, I learn that they tripped last year and fell. Their balance is terrible,” says McBeth.
 
But don’t be discouraged – if you do perform this test as an exercise a couple of times a day, your balance will improve. You can even start out by touching the wall with your two fingers to maintain your balance, she notes.
 
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Here are additional expert tips to keep your balance – and your bones – healthy:
 
1.      Review your medications with your doctor. Certain drugs affect balance. They can also cause numbness and tingling in the feet, dizziness, and slowed reflexes. Pain medications like Flexeril, Soma, and Paraflex are common offenders as well as long-acting benzodiazepines like Valium. Sleeping pills can cause drowsiness that carries over to the next day.
 
2.      Get your eyes checked. Cataracts or glaucoma can rob you of your ability to adjust to changes in light and glare, which can translate into an inability to maneuver stairs or avoid objects in your path. Such vision changes can occur gradually, impairing your balance without you even noticing. Regular vision checks are a must.
 
3.      If you need contacts or glasses, wear them, even at home. Make sure your glasses are clean and free of scratches.
 
4.      Have your hearing checked. Changes in hearing that occur with aging not only affect your ability to follow conversations, but the middle ears also contain semicircular canals lined with hair-like structures, fluids, and crystals that maintain balance. Sometimes your doctor can reposition these crystals to significantly improve your balance.
 
5.      Exercise daily. High intensity exercise is important, as well as weight training, and balance exercises like the ones noted above. Walking, jumping rope, and stair climbing are activities that help maintain bone and build muscle strength. Activities you enjoy, like dancing, can also improve muscle strength and balance.
 
6.      Concentrate on your posture. This doesn’t necessarily mean sitting ramrod straight. You can do that for short periods of time (it helps relieve sciatica), but don’t worry about the natural curve in your back. You can follow that curve, but be careful not to slump.
 
 
7.      Practice ankle exercises. Strong, flexible ankles can help prevent falls. Do exercises with your shoes on and off.
 
8.      Keep your yard and walkways in good shape and well lit. Repair loose steps and cracked sidewalks, and clear paths of brush and debris.
 
9.      Remove clutter from your home, such as oversized furniture, throw rugs, and other objects that can lead to falls.  
 
10. Check out the bathroom for dangers. Install grab bars in the walls around the tubs, add nonskid mats or appliquĂ©s to bathtubs, and use nonskid mats on surfaces that can get wet or slippery.

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