Obesity Increases Risk of Falling

A recent study from Syracuse University in New York found that obese seniors are more likely to suffer from a fall than thinner seniors. A key finding from the research was that obese adults age 65 or older were 12 to 50 percent more likely to take a fall over two years than their normal-weight peers. The likelihood of suffering a potentially disabling fall increased as Body Mass Index (BMI) increased, with those with a BMI of 40 or greater at a 50 percent higher risk. A BMI of 40 translates to carrying about 100 pounds of excess weight for a man and 80 excess pounds for a woman.

According to the study, more than a third of seniors fall each year in the Unites States. Yet, falls are generally viewed as an issue of thin, frail older adults, since their bones are especially prone to fracture. The study cites that in 2005, almost 16,000 deaths amongst seniors were caused as a result of a fall. With increasing obesity rates amongst both men and women over 65, the researchers wanted to investigate how obesity is associated with the likelihood of falling, as well as its role in sustaining fall-related injuries.  In their study, 10,755 people age 65 and up were surveyed every two years from 1998 through 2006. In this time frame, the seniors suffered a total of 9,621 falls. More than 3,100 falls resulted in injuries requiring medical attention. Interestingly, the more severely obese participants that fell—those with a BMI of greater than 40—were better protected from suffering a serious injury from a fall than normal-weight seniors.  This protection did not extend to those with milder obesity. Rather, the mildly obese seniors with a BMI of 30–34.9, were 17 percent more likely than normal-weight seniors to become disabled following a fall. One of the researchers, Christine Himes, explained that the findings highlight that “obese people, in general, may be vulnerable to taking a spill than thinner folks, perhaps due to decreased reaction time and poorer balance. And when obese people do fall, the most obese people may get some protection from injury by their extra padding and denser bones. But when obese people who are injured, they may be less likely to get better because they are in poorer health,” she concluded.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Additional Resources

Aside from weight loss, obese seniors could potentially decrease their risk of a fall through exercising regularly. Activities such as walking and tai chi can improve balance and coordination. It is important to be mindful of fall hazards like loose rugs and to install assistive devices for the shower. Additionally, research has been published with encouragingly positive findings for obese seniors who may be considering surgical weight loss. The study found that seniors do not have any worse side effects than younger people when undergoing weight loss surgery. You can read a summary of the study here.

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