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Experts say exercise can help the elderly prevent falls, injuries, a common hazard

DALLAS — Like a lot of people, former flight attendant Mary Nicholson wasn’t an exerciser. But two years ago she changed all that — at age 71.
    For Nicholson, part of the motivation to exercise was to be strong and agile enough to avoid a fall.
    ‘‘I’m bound and determined I’m not going to fall and break a bone,’’ she said during a workout that included balancing on one leg, working with weights and stair-climbing.
    Nicholson says she feels better, is stronger, and her balance is much improved.
    With one in three adults over the age of 65 falling each year, experts say that people should follow Nicholson’s lead as they get older.
    In 2004, the most recent year statistics are available, almost 15,000 people 65 and older died from falls and about 1.9 million were treated for injuries in emergency rooms, said Judy Stevens, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    ‘‘I think the magnitude of the problem is something that people don’t recognize,’’ Stevens said. ‘‘It really is a serious issue for older adults.’’
    Making sure that people over the age of 65 know how to avoid falling or being injured by a fall is the goal of a campaign launched this month by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
    The organizations say in addition to exercise, older people can make their homes safer by installing night lights, bathroom grab bars and slip-resistant floors.
    ‘‘If we continue to exercise, especially strength training, we decrease the loss of bone density. Just by working on strength training, you’re working your muscles to keep strong,’’ said Joe Scott, a NATA member who is outpatient orthopedic team leader for Southcoast Hospitals Group in New Bedford, Mass.
    Scott said that as people get older, they’re less active so they lose strength. Also, sight and balance problems can creep in.
    Stevens also said it’s a good idea for older people to have a doctor review their medicines each year to look for things like drug interactions that could lead to dizziness.
    Experts say certain exercises — yoga, tai chi, and trying to balance on one leg with your eyes closed — can help improve balance.
    If a younger person slips, they’ll usually catch themselves, but older people often have less strength and slower reaction times, experts say.
    Injuries from falls in the elderly can include broken wrists, elbows, arms and hips, said Dr. Jay Mabrey, chief of orthopedics at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
    ‘‘We don’t heal as quickly when we’re older,’’ Stevens said. ‘‘The older a person is when they fall, the harder it is to recover. For very elderly people, it can be devastating.’’
    Nicholson said that before joining the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center two years ago, she was not an exerciser.
    ‘‘I just gradually got into it,’’ said Nicholson, who works out with a trainer twice a week takes classes three times a week, including working out in water.
    She said she now just pops up off the couch instead of having to hoist herself up and she’s able to confidently walk a straight line.
    ‘‘I wanted good balance and the strength that goes along with it,’’ she said. ‘‘You just feel more secure.’’
    ———
    On the Net:
    American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: www.orthoinfo.org
    National Athletic Trainers’ Association: www.nata.org
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/injury

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