Ability to ‘think on your feet’ prevents falls in older people

A new study suggests that improving brain power and the ability to ‘think on your feet’ could help prevent older adults from falling.

The study, led by Dr Kim Delbaere and Prof Stephen Lord from Neuroscience Research Australia, showed that while physical abilities such as muscle strength, balance and reaction time are important in preventing falls, alertness and mental agility are important as well.

“Your cognitive function affects your ability to safely complete daily activities, which is essential for preventing falls,” Dr Delbaere says.

Using the NeuRA FallScreen, Dr Delbaere and colleagues assessed the risk of falling in 500 older people aged between 70-90 years of age.

In previous studies, the NeuRA FallScreen has been shown to accurately predict older people at risk falls. It measures vision, leg sensation, lower limb strength, reaction time and postural stability to assess a person’s risk of falling. However, FallScreen does not include measures of cognitive functioning, such as ability to pay attention, speed at which you can think and perform mental tasks, and ability to multi-task.

“We were hoping that by assessing the importance of mental ability in falls risk, we could further our understanding as to why some older people fall,” says Dr Delbaere.

In those people assessed as being at high risk of falling due to physical impairments, the researchers found that those who also showed poorer cognitive functioning had an additional 50% risk of falling in the next year.

“This may be because cognitive functioning is important for visual attention and multi-tasking, so for example the ability to talk to a friend or read a shop sign while walking down the street,” says Dr Delbaere.

“People who have poorer cognitive functioning may need to pay more attention to walking and concentrating on hazard such as foot path cracks, and be at greater risk of tripping and falling if they are distracted,” she says.

“Balance requires the interaction between many body systems, including the musculo-skeletal system, the sensory system and overall coordination by the brain. These systems all decline as people get older, putting balance at risk. Since good balance is one of the most important factors in preventing falls, it’s important to try and improve this ability.”

Dr Delbaere says that the best measure for preventing falls is exercise participation, with a specific focus on balance training.

However, she also believes that ‘brain training’ may also be of benefit.

“Some preliminary studies have shown that cognitive training through activities like mind games or other brain training activities can not only improve cognitive processing speed, but can also improve everyday function.

“This means that you may be able to reduce your risk of falling through cognitive training as well. It’s not nearly as well validated as exercise, but there may be something in it.”

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.