Modern advancements in medicine have allowed the human population to live longer than ever before. There are currently more elderly citizens on our planet than there have ever been. By definition, a person is referred to as elderly or older if they are at least 65 years old. In 2009, the elderly population in the U.S. consisted of 39.6 million people, or about 13 percent of our nation’s population. This number is expected to almost double by 2030 due to a larger younger population that is expected to live longer.
This population is also the most vulnerable to injury, as even short falls can cause life-threatening injuries. Falls have been the leading cause of death in the elderly population. While the fall is usually not the cause of death, subsequent injuries that result from the fall often cause elderly life threatening complications. Over 9,500 elderly deaths occur each year in America each year due to falls, and the majority of these deaths are caused from hip fracture. One out of four senior citizens who fracture their hips from a fall die within six months. Elderly falling is an enormous problem in the U.S. and the rest of the world that can be prevented by regular exercise.
Currently, regular exercise is the best preventative tool to avoid falls in the elderly population. While frequent activity has shown to be effective, it has shown that older people who start an exercise regime don’t follow through with it for more than a year.
Dr. Irene Hamrick, of the University Of Wisconsin Department of Family Medicine, is leading a team of researchers to introduce a program called Lifestyle-Integrated Functional Exercise (LiFE) to the elderly in Wisconsin and eventually the greater United States. LiFE was started in Australia as an alternative to a regular exercise routine. Unlike most exercise routines that require one-two hours of straight exercise, LiFE is different because “the activities are incorporated into daily routines, which makes patients do them more often and helps them to remember to do it,” Hamrick said. Instead of common exercises like lifting weights or jogging, LiFE has patients exercise while doing regular daily tasks. LiFE specifically focuses on balance and overall strength as a mean to prevent elderly patients from falling. For example, the LiFE program has patients balance on one leg while brushing their teeth or putting on socks. By incorporating exercise in everyday activities, “you make it a habit and every time you do the activity you will remember to do the exercise,” Hamrick explained. “Studies have shown that directing exercises towards daily activities significantly prevents falls and injuries while performing that activity,” she added.
LiFE encourages patients to take charge of their exercise on their own instead of routinely seeing professionals, which can be very time consuming and expensive. Currently, Dr. Hamrick and her team are working to “disseminate LiFE throughout Wisconsin and the greater U.S. market.” They are currently researching to “test different variables to accommodate the U.S. market.”
Dr. Hamrick’s work to incorporate LiFE throughout the U.S. has the potential to prevent thousands of elderly people from falling and thus potentially saving their lives. “When you ask an old person what they are most afraid of, it is not as much dying as it is becoming dependent on someone else or becoming institutionalized,” Hamrick explained. “Hip fractures cause 50 percent of elderly patients to become dependent or institutionalized,” The goal of the LiFE program is to prevent these falls and thus increase the elderly's quality of life. When you walk outside and see an elderly citizen squatting while waiting for a bus or balancing on one leg, don’t be surprised if they are following the LiFE program.