By 2011 it's projected that Australia will spend more than $600 million annually on health services related to falls in adults aged 65 and older. Identification of those at risk of falling could be improved by the use of simple cognitive tests, a pioneering study proposes.
The results of the first long-term study comparing mental ability and fall rates among elderly Australians have been published by researchers from The Australian National University and Flinders University in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
"The proportion of people aged over 65 in Australia is growing rapidly - and falls are one of the biggest causes of health problems for older people," project leader Dr Kaarin Anstey from the Centre for Mental Health Research at ANU said.
"Using data collected as part of the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging, we found that people with lower or declining cognitive ability are at greater risk of falling. This result was found among those who did not have dementia or cognitive impairment.
The study followed more than 500 people aged 70 over an eight-year period. Participants were tested at regular intervals for a range of cognitive abilities, motor skills, and health factors. They were then asked about the number of falls they experienced per year. Those people who showed lower or declining mental abilities were found to be at much greater risk of falling
"Previous studies have been much shorter, and tended to focus on the 'obvious' things that would increase the risk of falling, such as visual or motor impairment, psychotropic medication and dementia," Dr Anstey said. "We adjusted for all these contributors, and still found that cognitive ability was a reliable indicator of fall risk."
The study found that women were more likely to experience falls at all stages, and that multiple fallers were more likely be older and female. Dr Anstey said such findings would support a change in focus for health workers. "By adding to the existing tests for fall risk with brief measures of verbal reasoning, processing speed or memory, it may be possible to improve early interventions for falling and cut the rate of falls among older Australians," she said.
The research team included Professor Mary Luszcz from the University of Flinders and Chwee von Sanden from ANU. The study received funding from the South Australian Health Commission, the Australian Rotary Health Research Fund and the US National Institutes of Health. Dr Anstey is funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council Fellowship.
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