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Getting the ‘fall’ story on ageing


Zoe Satherley
26 March 2009
Julie James is one of those people who can trip over anything. Her husband Harry, too, knows what it is like to survive a nasty fall.

So the older citizens didn’t think twice about donating their time to participate in a Southern Cross University research project looking at whether a person’s personality profile influences their fear of falling.

The research is being undertaken by Bachelor of Exercise Science and Nutrition Honours student Warwick Maloney, who believes too little emphasis is placed on psychological factors when assessing the likelihood of falling, and too much emphasis is placed on physical measures such as strength, balance and agility.

Harry James, from Alstonville, still can’t believe he survived a fall down his stairwell. It happened in the dark one night as he walked through the door that he thought led into the bathroom. His wife Julie found him crumpled at the bottom of the flight of stairs and promptly called the ambulance.

Julie said she had a propensity to trip and fall. “I look forward instead of down and I can trip over anything,” she said. “That was why I decided to join Warwick’s study - just to see if there were any clues in my personality as to why I am always falling over.”

As falls create a huge healthcare cost throughout the world, researchers the world over are trying to discover ways to prevent them and to find ways of predicting the likelihood of falling, especially in older populations, Warwick said.

Warwick believes that the missing key to the puzzle may be gaining an understanding of the role personality plays in falling, and he is looking for 100 older people who would like to participate in his research.

Those participating simply need to complete a personality profile as well as answer a few simple questions relating to their fear of falling.

Older residents in the Tweed, Gold Coast, Northern Rivers and Mid North Coast areas are welcome to join the study. To participate you must be over the age of 70, living independently in the community and not receiving care or assistance for your normal activities of daily living.

Research participant Brian Sykes and his wife, Rosemary, of Goonellabah, joined the study because they, too, have many a ‘fall’ story.

“I like to keep active and have always been a hiker but I had a bad fall when climbing up a gorge a while ago,” Brian said.

“The trouble is that even though you are ageing, you still think as though you are 20. You want to keep on doing the things that brought you pleasure and that kept you fit and healthy, but sometimes it’s hard to accept that the body just isn’t geared up to doing those things in the same way anymore.”

Warwick said that clinically, healthcare was moving towards a multi-factorial approach to preventing falls and ‘we should be looking at many factors in conjunction’.

“My project will look at the five main global personality traits which are anxiety, extraversion, tough-mindedness, independence and self-control, and how they are related to a fear of falling,” he said.

“It may be possible that if we can establish a link between the fear of falling and personality type, this could be used as a falls predictor.

“I hope my research may help to answer some of these questions as one in three people over the age of 65 suffer a fall each year.

“Falls are the most common cause of serious injury in older people, and while home is where they mostly occur, falls are also the leading cause of injury in hospitals.

“Fall-related injuries cost NSW Health approximately $324 million annually, making falls more costly than any other injury. It is projected that by 2050, falls could cost NSW Health approximately $645 million annually, requiring another 800 acute care beds and a further 1200 new residential aged care facility beds.

“Falling is the greatest cause of injury that relates to the hospitalisation and death of people over 65, with about 30,000 people admitted to hospital each year as a result of a fall. Falls also cause at least 300 deaths in NSW each year.

“About 40 percent of people over 65 admitted to hospital for a fall end up in a nursing home, so you can see what a huge problem we are facing with an ageing population.”

If you would like to participate in the study, contact Warwick directly on [email protected] or phone him on 0425 288 079.

Photo: Warwick Maloney (centre) with study participants, from left: Rosemary and Brian Sykes, from Goonellabah, and Julie and Harry James, from Alstonville.