Each year, one in three people over 65 will fall

When we’re growing up, falling is a part of life. We’re taught to get back up, dust ourselves off and keep going. But as we get older, falls can become more serious – for people over 65, a single fall can lead to permanent disability, loss of independence, social isolation and even death.

I’m Professor Stephen Lord, Senior Principal Research Fellow at NeuRA. I’m writing to you about a serious issue that many of us worry about as we get older – falling.

Each year one in three people aged over 65 will have a fall. And falls are one of the most significant health challenges faced by older Australians. In 2017-2018, people over 65 accounted for 58% of hospitalisations due to falls and a staggering 95% of fall-related deaths.

If you know a loved one who has experienced a fall, you probably know firsthand how devastating it can be, especially if you’ve had to watch them grapple with lifelong pain and disability or lose their ability to care for themselves.

Falls are not just a problem for the individuals who experience them – falls take $4.3 billion from our healthcare budget every year, which means they affect all of us in one way or another.

With the number of Australians over 65 expected to make up 25% of our population in 20 years, the personal, social and economic cost of falls is only going to increase – unless we can make fall prevention training part of everyday healthcare for older people.

There’s currently no national policy or strategy to implement and fund fall prevention programs. We rely on limited funding and the ongoing support of generous donors like you to continue our research and bring our ground-breaking fall prevention programs to the wider community.

I joined NeuRA in 1994, when there was little to no research in the areas of stability and balance in older people. When I decided to dedicate my career to this field of research, one of the first things I did was to learn about the complex range of interlinking factors that keep us from falling.

I sought the advice of exercise scientists, vision Falls are not inevitable as we get older. scientists and experts in sensation, balance and cognition so I could understand why falls happen, and from there, find ways to prevent them.

Now, I lead NeuRA’s Falls, Balance and Injury Research Centre – a dedicated facility that conducts research into fall risk factors in older people and at-risk groups. Our aim is to develop effective fall prevention strategies that we can bring to the wider community and improve the lives of older people in Australia and the rest of the world. Over the last 30 years we’ve made great progress – working with over 20,000 participants to create programs that have proven to be effective in preventing falls.

Our research combines elements of physiology, biomechanics, psychology, physiotherapy, brain imaging and computer software engineering – and even virtual reality (VR). This equipment is expensive and lack of government funding for these programs means we rely on support from donors to make our dream a reality.

Falls happen when our physical abilities don’t match the immediate demands of the environment or activity we’re undertaking. Older people are more at risk of falling because of a natural decline in muscle strength, balance and vision that happens as we age.

From hip fractures to a traumatic brain injury, the consequences of a single fall can be devastating and long-lasting. Around one in 10 falls will lead to serious injury – one of the most serious being a hip fracture. Falls cause a staggering 20,000 hip fractures in Australia every year – a debilitating injury for an older person, from which many don’t recover.

Falls are not just a physical danger – the psychological effects of a fall can also have a lasting impact on a person’s mental health.

Fear and anxiety can cause older people to become less active through fear of falling. This in turn can lead to isolation, withdrawal from relationships and contribute to depression and other mental illnesses – far from the active, independent senior years most of us look forward to.

More investment in research and fall prevention programs is urgently needed so older Australians can reduce their risk of falls, recover faster and live the long, active and happy lives they deserve. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to help fund this important work.

We’re often led to believe that falls are inevitable as we get older, but they’re not. As part of my work at NeuRA we’ve developed a number of studies and fall prevention programs to help older Australians maintain their balance, recover from trips and slips and stay active and confident for longer.

With the right prevention, the rate of falls can be reduced by as much as 50%. And with the correct strategies and training, older people can learn to move around more safely and react quickly to prevent a fall. We’ve seen training participants improve their confidence and overcome the fear of falling that holds so many people back from fully participating in life, even when they haven’t experienced a fall themselves.

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a progressive, degenerative condition that’s characterised by slow movements, resting tremors and instability. This is a result of the destruction of neurons in a region of the brain that’s responsible for the production of dopamine – an essential neurotransmitter for facilitating voluntary movement.

There are over 80,000 people living with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) in Australia. Of this, over half will fall each year, resulting in devastating injuries, hospitalisation and an estimated cost of $45 million per year for individuals and their caregivers. The prevalence of PD is likely to double between 2010 and 2040, so more research and widespread access to fall prevention training is urgently needed. But the good news is trial evidence suggests the right intervention may have the potential to prevent falls by at least 35% in people with PD.

We’re currently running a trial for people living with PD, using a six-month home based cognitive motor step training program. This project has the potential to reduce the devastating personal and financial costs of falls in people living with PD. It will help not only the individual, but also their families, health care resources and the community.

Due to funding limitations, we’re not able to help as many people as we could. But, by increasing our understanding of falls, we hope to create simple interventions that can help more people across Australia, and the rest of the world.

The more we can do, the more we can benefit the community by bringing effective fall prevention strategies to everyone who needs them. Will you consider making a tax-deductible donation so we can give more older Australians access to fall prevention programs?

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far at NeuRA, but I know we can do more. With your support we can help older Australians stay active and independent for longer and avoid the potentially devastating consequences of a fall. The more we can research, the faster we can apply our findings so they can be incorporated into community health care – allowing us to help more people.

Your support would mean so much to us. Together, we can tackle this important, yet often overlooked issue and give more older Australians an active future, free from the fear and devastating impact of a fall.

Professor Stephen Lord
Senior Principal Research Fellow, NeuRA


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