Preventing Falls Among the Elderly

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Senator Byrd, meet Mary Tinetti.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), 91, reportedly lost his balance and fell down in his home Tuesday morning. It happens all the time to older people, for whom falling down can pose serious health issues.

But falling down isn’t an inevitable part of aging. So says Mary Tinetti, professor of medicine, epidemiology and public health at the Yale School of Medicine. Tinetti has been a leading researcher looking at seniors, the falls they take and the effect falling has on their health. Her research cites figures showing that a third of people over 65 fall each year and that fully half of those over 80 will fall in a given year.

Tinetti’s work caught the attention of the MacArthur Foundation, which on Tuesday named her one of 24 recipients of the foundation’s famous "genius" grants this year.

Tinetti’s research has demonstrated that older people don’t typically just fall down for no good reason; their falls are commonly due to such factors as impaired balance, gait, cognition, vision and muscle strength plus changes in blood pressure, physical obstacles in their living areas and taking multiple medications. By figuring out what causes seniors to fall, Tinetti’s been able to devise ways to prevent falling — simple measures such as cutting back on medications, teaching balance exercises and removing those physical obstacles — and thus to ward off falling’s complications, such as hip fracture, and the physical and mental decline that often follows a fall.

Tinetti has been working to help physicians view fall prevention as an integral part of the care of older patients. It sounds simple, right? But despite the frequency with which seniors fall, it seems nobody had called attention to falling as a major and preventable source of poor health among the elderly.

Nobody, that is, until Tinetti. That’s why she got that big ($500,000 over five years, to be spent as she wishes) MacArthur grant.

Do you figure they ever give those to health bloggers?

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