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fall risk

Yoga can improve balance and strength, which are risk factors for falls. METRO photo
Fear of falling can lead to greater risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Earlier in life, falls usually do not result in significant consequences. However, once we reach middle age, falls become more substantial. Even without icy steps and walkways, falls can be a serious concern for older patients, where consequences can be devastating. They can include brain injuries, hip fractures, a decrease in functional ability and a decline in physical and social activities (1). Ultimately, a fall can lead to loss of independence (2).

Contributors to fall risk

Many factors contribute to fall risk. A personal history of falling in the recent past is the most prevalent. But there are many other significant factors, such as age and medication use. Some medications, like antihypertensive medications used to treat high blood pressure and psychotropic medications used to treat anxiety, depression and insomnia, are of particular concern. Chronic diseases can also contribute.

Circumstances that predispose us to falls also involve weakness in upper and lower body strength, decreased vision, hearing disorders and psychological issues, such as anxiety and depression (3).

Simple fall prevention tips

Of the utmost importance is exercise. But what do we mean by “exercise”? Exercises involving balance, strength, movement, flexibility and endurance all play significant roles in fall prevention (4).

Many of us in the Northeast are also low in vitamin D, which may strengthen muscle and bone. This is an easy fix with supplementation. Footwear also needs to be addressed. Nonslip shoes are crucial indoors, and outside in winter, footwear that prevents sliding on ice is a must. Inexpensive changes in the home, like securing area rugs, can also make a big difference.

Medication side-effects

There are a number of medications that may heighten fall risk. As I mentioned, psychotropic drugs top the list. But what other drugs might have an impact?

High blood pressure medications have been investigated. A propensity-matched sample study (a notch below a randomized control trial in terms of quality) showed an increase in fall risk in those who were taking high blood pressure medication (5). Those on moderate doses of blood pressure medication had the greatest risk of serious injuries from falls, a 40 percent increase.

While blood pressure medications may contribute to fall risk, they have significant benefits in reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease and events. Thus, we need to weigh the risk-benefit ratio in older patients before considering stopping a medication. When it comes to treating high blood pressure, lifestyle modifications may also play a significant role in treating this disease (6).

How exercise helps

All exercise has value. A meta-analysis of a group of 17 trials showed that exercise significantly reduced the risk of a fall (7). If the categories are broken down, exercise led to a 37 percent reduction in falls that resulted in injury and a 30 percent reduction in those falls requiring medical attention. Even more impressive was a 61 percent reduction in fracture risk.

Remember, the lower the fracture risk, the more likely you are to remain physically independent. Thus, the author summarized that exercise not only helps to prevent falls but also fall injuries.

Unfortunately, those who have fallen before, even without injury, often develop a fear that causes them to limit their activities. This leads to a dangerous cycle of reduced balance and increased gait disorders, ultimately resulting in an increased risk of falling (8).

What types of exercise?

Tai chi, yoga and aquatic exercise have been shown to have benefits in preventing falls and injuries from falls.

A randomized controlled trial showed that those who did an aquatic exercise program had a significant improvement in the risk of falls (9). The aim of the aquatic exercise was to improve balance, strength and mobility. Results showed a reduction in the number of falls from a mean of 2.00 to a fraction of this level — a mean of 0.29. There was also a 44 percent decline in the number of exercising patients who fell during the six-month trial, with no change in the control group.

If you don’t have a pool available, Tai Chi, which requires no equipment, was also shown to reduce both fall risk and fear of falling in older adults in a randomized control trial of 60 male and female participants (10).

Another pilot study used modified chair yoga classes with a small assisted living population (11). Participants were those over 65 who had experienced a recent fall and had a resulting fear of falling. While the intention was to assess exercise safety, researchers found that participants had less reliance on assistive devices and three of the 16 participants were able to eliminate their use of mobility assistance devices.

Thus, our best line of defense against fall risk is prevention. Does this mean stopping medications? Not necessarily. But for those 65 and older, or for those who have arthritis and are at least 45 years old, it may mean reviewing your medication list with your doctor. Before considering changing your blood pressure medications, review the risk-to-benefit ratio with your physician.

References:

(1) MMWR. 2014; 63(17):379-383. (2) J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1998;53(2):M112. (3) JAMA. 1995;273(17):1348. (4) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;9:CD007146. (5) JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Apr;174(4):588-595. (6) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):577-587. (7) BMJ. 2013;347:f6234. (8) Age Ageing. 1997 May;26(3):189-193. (9) Menopause. 2013;20(10):1012-1019. (10) Mater Sociomed. 2018 Mar; 30(1): 38–42. (11) Int J Yoga. 2012 Jul-Dec; 5(2): 146–150.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

Consider monitoring blood pressure on both arms. Stock photo

This week, I’d like to discuss some of the nuances of hypertension, or high blood pressure, a contributing risk factor for heart disease. Hypertension affects approximately 33 percent of Americans, according to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and only 52 percent of these have it controlled (1). What could we possibly learn about blood pressure that we have not heard already? New information is always coming out about this common disease. Studies are teaching us about diagnostic techniques and timing, as well as consequences of hypertension and its treatment. Let’s look at the evidence.

Technique

When you go to the doctor’s office, they usually take your blood pressure first. But do they take readings in both arms and, if so, have you wondered why? I take blood pressure readings in both arms, and when one of my longtime patients asked me why, I joked that I need to practice. In truth, it’s because there may be significant benefit from taking readings in both arms.

An analysis of the Framingham Heart Study and Offspring Study showed that when the blood pressure was taken in both arms, when there was a difference of more than 10 mm Hg in the systolic (top number) blood pressure, then there may be an increased risk for the development of cardiovascular disease — stroke and heart disease (2).

This is a simple technique that may give an indication of who is at greater cardiovascular disease risk. In fact, when this interarm blood pressure comparison showed a 10 mm Hg difference, it allowed the researchers to identify an almost 40 percent increased risk of having a cardiac event, such as a stroke or a heart attack, with minimal extra effort expended.

So, the next time you go to the doctor’s office, you might want to ask if they would take your blood pressure in both arms to give you and your doctor a potential preliminary indication of increased cardiovascular disease risk.

Timing

When do we get our blood pressure taken? For most of us it is usually at the doctor’s office in the middle of the day. This may not be the most effective reading. Nighttime blood pressure readings may be the most accurate, according to one study (3). This was a meta-analysis (a group of nine observational studies) involving over 13,000 patients. Neither the clinical nor daytime readings correlated significantly with cardiovascular events when multiple confounding variables were taken into account, while every 10 mm Hg increase at night had a more significant predictive value.

Twenty-four ambulatory blood pressures readings were taken with these patients, which means these were standardized readings. Does this mean that nighttime readings are more important? Not necessarily, but it is an interesting finding. With my patients, if blood pressure is high in my office, I suggest that patients take their blood pressure at home, both in the morning and at night, and send me readings on a weekly basis. However, at least one of the readings should be taken before antihypertensive medications are taken, since these will alter the readings.

Salt impact

There has always been a debate about whether salt really plays a role in high blood pressure and heart disease. The latest installment in this argument is a compelling British study called the Health Survey from England. It implicates sodium as one potential factor exacerbating the risk for high blood pressure and, ultimately, cardiovascular disease (4). The results show that when salt intake was reduced by an average of 15 percent, there was a significant blood pressure reduction and that this reduction may be at least partially responsible for a 40 percent reduction in stroke mortality and a 42 percent reduction in heart disease mortality.

The graphs of sodium reduction mimicked the line graphs for the reductions in deaths from stroke and heart disease. One potential study weakness was that physical activity was not taken into account. However, a strength of this study was that it measured salt intake through 24-hour urine tests. Most of our dietary salt comes from processed foods that we least suspect, such as breads, pastas and cheeses.

Age-related macular degeneration

When we think of blood pressure-lowering medications, we don’t usually consider age-related macular degeneration as a potential side effect. However, in the Beaver Dam Eye Study, those patients who were taking blood pressure medications were at a significant 72 percent increased overall risk of developing early-stage AMD (5). It did not matter which class of blood pressure-lowering drug the patient was using, all had similar effects: calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, diuretics, and angiotensin receptor blockers.

However, the researchers indicated that they could not determine whether the blood pressure or the blood pressure medication was the potential contributing factor. In addition, another study actually suggests the opposite — that blood pressure medications may reduce the risk of AMD (6). However, this was a retrospective (backward-looking) study, and it has yet to be published.

This is a controversial topic. If you are on blood pressure medications and are more than 65 years old, I would recommend that you get yearly eye exams by your ophthalmologist.

Fall risk

As we age, falling risk seems to increase. One study shows that blood pressure medications significantly increase fall risk in the elderly (7). Overall, 9 percent of these patients on blood pressure medications were seriously injured when they fell. Those who were considered moderate users of these medications had a 40 percent increased risk of fall. But, interestingly, those who were consider high-intensity users had a slightly less robust risk of fall (28 percent) than the moderate users. The researchers used the Medicare database with 5,000 participants as their data source. The average age of the participants in the study was 80.

Does this mean that we should discontinue blood pressure medications in this population? Not necessarily. This should be assessed at an individual level between the patient and the doctor. Also, one weakness of this study was that there was no dose-response curve. In other words, as the dosage increased with high blood pressure medications, one would expect a greater fall risk. However, the opposite was true.

In conclusion, we have some simple, easy-to-implement, takeaways. First, consider monitoring blood pressure in both arms, since a difference can mean an increased risk of cardiovascular events. Reduce your salt intake; it appears that many people may be sensitive to salt, as shown by the British study. If you do take blood pressure medications and are at least 65 years old, take steps to reduce your risk of falling and have annual ophthalmic exams to check for AMD.

References: (1) CDC.gov/blood pressure. (2) Am J Med. 2014 Mar;127(3):209-215. (3) J Am Soc Hypertens 2014;8:e59. (4) BMJ Open 2014;4:e004549. (5) Ophthalmology online April 30, 2014. (6) ARVO 2013 Annual Meeting: presentation. (7) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):588-595.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.