6 Tips to Prevent the Risk of Injuring Your Body As You Age
By Sheryl Stillman for Next Avenue
"Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," goes the traditional children's song. Teachers and family taught us how important our bodies are and how bones work together from early on. As parents, we may have later danced the dance with our children, patting each extremity with joy and wonder. However, we sadly find now, years later, there are one or more of these parts that no longer function as they once did when we were younger.
Or we are simply more susceptible to disease or injury due to age.
Millions of people 55 and over go to the hospital each year for a musculoskeletal injury, with the majority admitted and falls listed as the primary cause.
In April 2021, the World Health Organization estimated nearly 700,000 people die from falls globally, with adults over 60 suffering the most. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 20 million adults in the United States over 65 have osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease mainly affecting hands, hips and knees. Data show that individuals who suffer from arthritis are 2.5 times likelier to fall.
With such high statistics, Next Avenue talked to medical experts to learn how to reduce your risk of injury or avoid worsening an underlying condition.
1. Look Underneath
Before starting any new exercise regime, Dr. Michael Stuart, an orthopedic surgeon and professor of orthopedics at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says, "you should first be seen by your primary care physician, physical therapist or an orthopedist."
This is especially important to make an accurate diagnosis and develop a program right for you if you have unexplained or ongoing pain. Often, you might experience discomfort in one part of your body, only to learn it's coming from an area you hadn't considered.
Amy Davis, 59, from Fort Wayne, Ind., recently completed Total Knee Arthroplasty (TKA) and can relate to this advice. "I thought the pain in my knees was from pinched nerves in my back, but X-rays showed bone-on-bone on my right knee and almost the same on my left," says Davis.
When meeting with your doctor, also ask whether you are a candidate for a Bone Density Test. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that you have one if you are a post-menopausal woman and recently broke a bone, or a man over 50. A physician will need to order this non-invasive test for you.
2. Keep Fit
"The best thing a person can do is maintain physical fitness to prevent a fall or injury," says Dr. Molly Jarman, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and lead investigator with the Center for Surgery and Public Health in the department of surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
By being both strong and coordinated, you are less likely to fall, and if you do, you may heal faster.
"You have to remember that the body design we are working with is intended to fall apart and be impermanent," says Dr. Andrew Grose, orthopedic trauma surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Stamford, Conn. He recommends focusing on three critical areas for fitness:
1) Strength training
"There is good evidence that strength training is essential for people over the age of forty. You don't need to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you need to maintain muscle mass," Grose said.
Tai Chi (which has been proven to have medical benefits), yoga, walking and the elliptical are all ways to improve your balance. And be sure to do gentle stretching to stay flexible.
3. Get Aerobic
Regular aerobic exercises include swimming, walking briskly, jogging or bicycling, which all provide cardiovascular conditioning known to improve heart health, blood flow and lung capacity by fueling muscles to move and burn more fuel.
Another benefit, according to the Mayo Clinic: your body releases endorphins that promote "an increased sense of well-being."
Check for recommended exercise guidelines here.
4. Maintain Weight
"Managing your weight contributes to good health now and as you age," according to the CDC. While many orthopedic issues are genetic or due to an acute injury, joint problems can result from the extra stress and inflammation in your knees, hips or even your hands.
5. Be Safe
With falls happening most often in or near your home, here are a few ways to accident-proof your surroundings:
Remove tripping hazards. Tape down area rugs and make sure carpet is not fraying.
Put things away. Reduce obstacles by placing items back where they belong.
Install nightlights. Add light to hallways and bathrooms so you can see where you are heading in the middle of the night.
Wear proper footwear. Ensure your feet are supported by matching shoes to the activity. And if you have questions, check with your doctor or physical therapist on which ones are right for you. Also, invest in non-slip socks if you have hardwood or slippery floors, or go barefoot.
Watch your step. Limit distractions when walking on sidewalks, paths or even around your home. And look down to see if there are bumps, divots, rocks, twigs, branches or other obstructions that may trip you up.
6. Check Medications
As they age, people take an increasing number of medications, including over-the-counter drugs. Research shows that some drugs on their own, or combined with others, may impact balance and increase fall risk.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist about this risk for any current or future prescription and non-prescription pills you take.