Falling May Be An Early Sign of Dementia

By Simon Spichak, MSc | September 6th, 2022

Falling is linked to impairments across memory, concentration and cognition in adults over the age of 65. After sudden falls or loss of balance, experts say, older adults should consider cognitive testing to rule these out.

For older adults, falls — and the potentially life-altering injuries they could bring about —  are a serious concern in the U.S. In fact, fatal injuries resulting from falls are a leading cause of death for adults age 65 or over. Falls occur when an individual loses their balance. Loss of balance or coordination may come along with common prescription medications — for example,  prescription opioids, which are taken by an estimated one in four individuals worldwide over 65. They can also be a warning sign of a serious brain health condition: One 2020 study found that cognitively healthy older adults who experienced falls were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease in later years. 

“When a person’s mobility is being diminished, that could be a sign that something needs further evaluation,” Dr. Beau M. Ances, a senior author on the paper and a Washington University professor of neurology said in a press release

Considering this suggested link between falls and the onset of dementia, a sudden fall or a recurring loss of balance may be cause for a visit to your doctor. Noticing — and preventing — falls can help you maintain health and independence. 

The science behind falls and cognitive decline

In the 2020 study, researchers followed more than 850 cognitively healthy adults over two years, tracking their cognitive scores and the number of times they took a fall. People who had multiple falls over this period also showed signs of cognitive decline, including impairments in memory, concentration and language. Among the group of people who fell just once over the study period,  the researchers saw associations declining processing speed and attention. 

The people who experienced falls were more likely to develop motoric cognitive risk, a condition characterized by slow movements and cognitive decline, which can make it more difficult to maintain balance. Another group of researchers found that this syndrome could double the risk of developing dementia. 

Exercise and fall prevention

Exercise is already recognized as crucial for maintaining brain health. But it has an added benefit beyond keeping your mind and body fit: It can also be an effective strategy for fall prevention

Balance training exercises are especially helpful in this regard. Research shows  that task-specific, reactive exercises — for example, practicing standing still or maintaining balance while moving from a sitting to a standing position — are helpful in preventing falls.  

In addition to exercise, there are ways to update living spaces that can also make a big difference when it comes to safety and fall prevention. Experts suggest  small accessibility-conscious design updates to help prevent falls and allow you or your loved ones to live independently for longer. Read more about those here.

If you have concerns about falling, you can visit a local Alzheimer’s advocacy organization for accessibility tips. Further, consider talking to your doctor about your brain health: Undergoing cognitive testing  after experiencing a sudden fall could help catch cognitive decline early — and that means more time to make lifestyle changes that are known to help reduce dementia risk — not to mention getting involved in Alzheimer’s clinical trials.

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