Obesity tied to older adults' risk of falls: study

Elderly patient

Obese older adults may be more likely than their thinner peers to suffer a potentially disabling fall -- though the most severely overweight may be somewhat protected from injury, according to a US study.

Falls are often seen as a problem for thin, frail older adults, since their bones are especially prone to fractures, but obesity carries its own risks, said researchers whose findings appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

"People who are obese may have a harder time with balance", said Christine Himes, of Syracuse University in New York, who worked on the study. "And when obese older adults lose their footing, they may be less able to react quickly and stop a fall", she added.

Looking at 10,755 people aged 65 and up, Himes and colleague Sandra Reynolds found that obese older adults were anywhere from 12 per cent to 50 percent more likely to suffer a fall over two years than their normal-weight peers.

Those odds rose with the level of obesity. The 50 per cent higher risk was seen among people with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher -- about 45 kg (100 lb) overweight for a man, or 36 kg (80 lb) overweight for a woman.

Body mass index is a measure of weight against height.

The study participants were surveyed every two years. Between 1998 and 2006, the group reported a total of 9,621 falls, resulting in more than 3,100 injuries serious enough to need medical attention.

Of people who suffered a fall, 23 per cent were obese, compared with just under 20 percent among older adults who did not fall during the study period.

The researchers factored in health conditions linked to both obesity and the risk of falling, such as arthritis, pain in the legs, diabetes and stroke. But obesity itself was still linked to a higher fall risk. But when it came to the risk of being injured by a fall, the most severely obese older adults, with a BMI of 40 or higher, were one-third less likely to be injured than normal-weight people who fell.

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