Wisconsin leads nation in deadly falls among elderly as experts say it could get worse

Published: Sep. 22, 2020 at 6:37 PM CDT
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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) - More older adults die from accidental falls in Wisconsin than any other state in the country.

In fact, falls are the top reason in Marathon County why this age group ends up in the emergency room.

Leaders say we need a shift in perspective from thinking about falling as a normal part of aging to thinking of falls as medical conditions that are preventable with training.

The “Stepping On” class teaches easy ways to prevent falling.

“To improve your balance, to improve your coordination, to improve your bone health, and to make your houses safer,” explains Kate Giblin, health promotion coordinator for the ADRC of Portage County. “You can tailor what is going to work best and cause you to feel confident.”

The ADRC offered it for free with a suggested donation before the pandemic.

Falls are the leading cause of accidental death from an injury, according to the Marathon County life report.

“We’re talking about preventing not only the loss of independence that seniors experience, the deaths, and the enormous cost of falls, which, when you calculate nationally, is up in the billions of dollars,” she said.

In 2019, 30 people in the county, all over 60, died after accidentally falling.

“Worst case scenario is when somebody dies from a fall, but there’s all these other people that have experienced maybe even a trip or a slip and they won’t consider it a fall, but it has a big impact on them and how confident they feel,” said Peggy Kurth, community health educator for the ADRC.

It’s also the number one thing sending adults over 60 to the ER at Aspirus Wausau Hospital. Last year, falling made up 55% of the traumatic injuries they saw.

“So that’s a huge percentage of the traumatic injuries we see being from one cause,” said Amanda Tabin, Aspirus' injury prevention coordinator.

Aspirus keeps track of traumatic injuries with their trauma registry. Last year, 850 out of 1700 people on the registry suffered fall-related injuries.

Wisconsin might top the list because the state is good at reporting fall deaths. It could also be our lifestyle.

“We have a long and icy winter, and the other possible explanation or contributing factor is there is a culture of heavier drinking in Wisconsin,” Giblin said.

The ADRC finds that those who recover from a fall reduce their activity even more out of fear when increasing it is critical.

“The more they fear falling, the less they are likely to be active and engaged and go out into the community. That causes a spiral effect,” Giblin said. “If you don’t use it, you lose it, and when you’re older, that strength goes by really fast.”

“The good news about falls is that they are preventable,” said Kurth. “Just because we’re getting older, doesn’t mean automatically that we’re going to have a fall.”

Funding for fall prevention was cut entirely in 2017 before Governor Tony Evers requested $250,000 in 2019. Leaders say we need to increase awareness about prevention in the coming years. 25% of our population will soon be over the age of 65.

“Wisconsin’s aging population is growing six times faster than the national average, and so fall prevention and a healthy attitude about aging is going to be vital because our economy is going to depend on it,” she said.

Because of COVID-19, the ADRC is not able to offer Stepping On right now, but you can call your county’s ADRC for other resources for older adults to work on prevention.

Doctors can also help customize a way for people to work on fall prevention, and determine whether vision and hearing issues are the cause, or whether balance issues are caused by medications.

“Many older adults are on quite a few medications, so reviewing those medications with a doctor or pharmacist can be really key,” Tabin said.

Tabin added how important it is to go to the hospital for a fall, stressing that it’s safe to visit the emergency room or doctor’s office during the pandemic.

Copyright 2020 WSAW. All rights reserved.

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