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Ruth Willoughby of Spring Valley (left, reflected in mirror)works on improving her balance while physical therapist Mida Dittmar steadies her arm. Willoughby suffered a catastrophic fall that injured her head and wiped out decades of her memory, only a portion of which has returned. New medical research shows that fatal falls have tripled in recent years as aging Americans live longer and with complex medical conditions and live on their own, putting them in jeopardy of sustaining a fall with no one to aid them.

It only took a split second. Ruth Willoughby had walked her dog 3-5 miles daily without incident, but then one day — boom — down she went and “when I woke up it was 1966.”

No, the Spring Valley woman didn’t have a Rip Van Winkle episode; but she struck her head and that wiped out 50 years of her memory. Her dog led her to a neighbor who sent for help. Ask her to recall something after the moon landing and there are coin-flip odds she can answer.

“I’ve only regained 19 of the 50 years,” Willoughby said. “I live in the Stough Group apartments in Spring Valley and I see people all the time who are recovering from falls. Sometimes you don’t think a fall is much, but you need to get to somebody.”

Researchers agree that falls, especially injurious or fatal ones, have risen sharply in recent years. New studies show fatal falls in particular have nearly tripled in older Americans, rising to more than 25,000 deaths yearly, according to a report by The Associated Press. The reasons are clearly understood and were cited in a pair of studies.

“Deaths from falls may have increased because older people are living longer, living longer independently, and are living longer with chronic conditions,” said Elizabeth Burns, co-author of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and health scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s injury center.

The new analysis included 16 years of U.S. vital statistics data on adults aged 75. Fatal falls increased from 8,600 in 2000 to 25,190 in 2016. Separate CDC data show they climbed even higher in 2017, to almost 26,440 fatal falls in Americans aged 75 and older.

The rate in the study more than doubled, from 51 fatal falls per 100,000 people to 122 falls per 100,000. The results echo studies of fatal fall trends in the Netherlands and other European countries.

And it’s happening in the Illinois Valley. The La Salle County Coroner’s Office has reported eight fall-related fatalities in the past four years. The median age was 80 and six of those who died fell down a flight of steps.

Lindsey Nordstrom is a physical therapist who works at Liberty Village in Peru. She said she’s definitely seen an increase in the number of seniors requiring rehabilitation following a fall and strongly recommends that both seniors and their families take preventive measures.

First among these is to equip seniors with a cellular telephone and/or emergency alert system for them to send for help when they’ve fallen. She also recommends surveying a home to remove obvious trip-and-fall causes such as throw rugs. Nordstrom recommended visiting the National Institute on Aging’s website for tips on how to prevent falls.

“I think people believe that loss of balance is a natural part of aging, but that’s just not the case,” Nordstrom said. “There could be something underlying going on such as muscle weakness or side effect or interaction with prescription medication. There’s always more to the story than just age.”

Mida Dittmar, who works at City Center Physical Therapy in Peru, agreed that regular checkups and preventive care can go a long way toward reducing the risk of falls and resulting injury. Many conditions that lend to falls are correctable — adjustments in medication, for example — and it’s a good idea to have seniors evaluated both by their primary care physicians as well as geriatric specialist or physical therapist.

Regular medical care is especially needed for seniors taking one or more prescription medications, which is to say nearly all of them. Even routine maintenance pharmaceuticals such as blood pressure drugs can cause dizziness or affect vision. Indeed, a trip to the eye doctor is recommended to ensure seniors can navigate their homes in dark or dimly-lit conditions.

Shane Smith, a physical therapist at St. Margaret’s Center for Physical Rehabilitation, agreed that that general practitioners are “the first line of defense,” it’s worth a family’s time to arrange for mom or dad to visit a physical therapist for an annual or semi-annual evaluation.

“I don’t like to blame things on age, whether it be balance or muscle weakness,” Smith said. “I would lean on the side of the fence that we can improve balance, no matter what age you are. We can definitely improve on those areas to prevent a fall in the future.”

Nordstrom said the best way to prevent a fall is exercise. A physical therapist can pinpoint what muscles are weak and recommend training or rehabilitation to strengthen the muscles and reduce the likelihood of a fall.

Not far behind exercise is diet. Seniors lose their taste buds and have a tendency to lapse into poor eating habits, making a dietary review a key component to ensure people keep their balance.

Illinois Valley Community Hospital Medical Group is among the health providers that conduct “fall risk” assessments that will assign a point value to seniors and help providers make recommendations. These range from awareness and vitamin supplements all the way up to implementing a risk-prevention program such as installing specialized bathroom equipment.

“I think we are bringing a lot more awareness to this because falls can result in a fatal injury,” said Hope Turigliatti, patient care navigator for IVCH. “I do believe patients today are expecting they will be screened for fall risks.”

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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