Falls consume an estimated 6% of Medicare expenditures each year, but the risk can be meaningfully reduced in individuals over the age of 65 years when risk assessment justifies strength and neuromuscular training, according to an update on this field at the annual meeting at the Endocrine Society.

Dr. Kenton R. Kaufman, codirector of the Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

Dr. Kenton R. Kaufman

“The risk of falling in older adults is very high, but risk can be evaluated, and there are effective strategies for risk reduction,” reported Kenton R. Kaufman, PhD, codirector of the Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

There is not much debate that aging individuals are at an increased risk of falls, but Dr. Kaufman presented his own set of data to reinforce this point. In a longitudinal study of 125 individuals over the age of 65 years who were followed for a year at his institution, 59% had at least one fall even though all were healthy and functional when enrolled.

“It was more common to fall in summer than in winter, and most occurred on a level surface,” said Dr. Kaufman citing data from a study published 2 years ago (Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2017;73:240-7). About half of the falls occurred at home.

Only 20%-30% of falls lead to moderate to severe injuries, but this is enough to make fall prevention an appropriate and important focus of public health initiatives to reduce morbidity and lower health costs, according to Dr. Kaufman, citing data suggesting that the medical costs total in the billions of dollars.

As a result of a substantial body of research in this area, there are now multiple clinical tests, such as grip strength, the functional reach test, and the 5-minute walk, that provide some degree of predictive value for identifying elderly individuals at risk for falls.

In addition, simple questionnaires that measure the fear of falling, such as the Activities-Specific Balance Confidence Scale (ABC test), and the Falls Efficacy Scale, also identify individuals at higher risk of falling. According to Dr. Kaufman, the predictive value of these questionnaires stems from the fact that those with more fears are more likely to fall.

Dr. Kaufman advised using these simple measures alone or in combination to screen aging patients for risk of failing. Although he singled out grip strength and the ABC test as the clinical test and the questionnaire he is most likely to employ, he believes others are also reasonable. When performed by primary care physicians, although not specialists, evaluating patients for risk of falling is Medicare-reimbursable, according to Dr. Kaufman.

There are two components to effective prophylaxis. One is improving muscle strength. The other is improving neuromuscular response, which means moving quickly enough to compensate when one’s center of gravity is disturbed. According to Dr. Kaufman, who cited two randomized trials, exercise to restore muscle strength can by itself reduce the risk of falling by 10%-20%.

Neuromuscular training is more intensive and not widely available but very effective. This involves training patients to improve their reaction time in the event of an impending fall. This approach, called postural perturbation training, employs a harness to prevent injury.

“The elderly can lose their facility for rapid recovery but this can be relearned,” said Dr. Kaufman, who cited another two randomized trials with this approach that reduced falls by 45% and 55%.

Postural perturbation training, although used to train amputees to gain comfort ambulating on artificial limbs, has so far had limited use in the elderly, but Dr. Kaufman said it might have utility in selected individuals, and he noted that there is at least one commercial device now being marketed.

Many elderly patients will not be candidates for training to reduce falls due to frailty or comorbid conditions that prevent exercise, but Dr. Kaufman encouraged clinicians to evaluate risk of falls in aging individuals who are active because there are strategies to reduce risk, and falls are a major source of morbidity and mortality.

Even for those who are not suitable for risk reduction strategies, testing for risk of falls has the ancillary benefit of raising awareness, according to Dr. Kaufman.

Dr. Kaufman reported no relevant financial relationships to disclose.