Older veterans tend to be more physically active, which may lead to falls, but when they do tumble, they are less likely to hurt themselves. The University of Michigan organized a study that found the results of the number of falls taken by veterans.
The study’s lead author, Geoffrey Hoffman, U-M assistant professor of nursing, compared the risks of non-injury falls and fall-related injuries in veterans and nonveteran populations. He analyzed the different risk factors according to physical activity and age. Historically, veterans are more physically active than non-veterans.
For the study, Hoffman and his team used data from 11,841 veterans and 36,710 non-veterans in the 2006-2015 waves of the Health and Retirement Study at the U-M Institute for Social Research. After comparing results, the study found that veterans had 11% more non-injury falls but 28% fewer injurious falls than non-veterans.
“The inference is that being active puts you at more risk for a fall, but if you are more active/in shape, the fall is more likely to be a minor one and not a serious one resulting in injury,” Hoffman said. “A worthwhile trade-off, arguably.”
This research helps to outline the importance of staying physically active into old age. “It is critical to find a good, healthy balance between physically active and fall risk,” Hoffman said.
“Personally, I’d rather not be the older adult who feels it’s best to always sit on my couch because I’m too afraid of having a fall, so that when I do fall, it’s really serious,” he said.
Emotional and Physiological Health Risks
Previous studies have shown that lack of physical activity in all stages of life can affect both emotional and physiological health risks including diabetes, obesity, depression, social isolation, and high blood pressure. However, older adults may reap the benefits of physical activity even more.
“In an ideal world, we’d hope that you could get the benefits of being active, such as well-being, fitness, and happiness, while avoiding all risk and having no falls,” Hoffman said. “It seems more probable that being active is, in the longer-term, often protective against serious injury from falls. Maybe when you’re active, a fall isn’t as risky because you’re in better shape, even while physical activity marginally increases nonserious fall risk.
“That’s important, I think. A good trade-off can be made: more activity and independence at the cost of some more minor falls. It’s up to each older individual with the input of family caregivers to weigh those trade-offs.”
There is a certain point in life where the returns of physical activity become diminished. However, it is unclear why or what age it stops having a protective effect. More research is needed to uncover these questions along with other variables including the difference between men and women. The study looked primarily at men, but it’s “entirely plausible” that the relationship between falls and injury and physical activity also exists in women, Hoffman said.