For Elderly, Falls May Mean Serious Injury

generic old senior citizen elderly age hands cane

Diane Schraeder lives with the daily fear that she's just one stumble away from a serious injury.

"I feel like I'm going to fall down," said Schraeder. "I hold on to things, like the walls or the chairs or something so I don't fall."

Since she started having balance problems a year and a half ago, Schraeder has broken her wrist falling in the backyard and admits to falling several times in her home, reports CBS News contributor Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

"It's kind of an embarrassing situation … because I know a lot of people are saying 'Look at the drunk old lady,'" she said.

Schraeder's situation is part of a growing epidemic - almost two million older Americans go to the emergency room each year as a result of falling. With millions of baby-boomers heading into their retirement years, health officials worry about a tidal wave of injuries.

"The potential for this particular problem in our community is huge," said Sharyn Heuer, of Scottsdale Healthcare in Arizona. "I just think that we don't put it in the same category as things like cancer and heart disease and stroke because so many times, it's so often viewed as a normal progression of aging."

One possible solution is the use of space-age technology - literally. Schraeder visits the Balance and Mobility Center at Scottsdale Healthcare, where technology originally developed to test the balance of astronauts back from space is now used to pinpoint problems that can lead to falls.

Another strategy is to limit the risk factors in homes. To cut down on emergency calls, the Scottsdale Fire Department inspects the homes of senior citizens and offer tips on avoiding stumbles. The most common advice - get rid of rugs.

"The problem with rugs is that as we age, sometimes our leg strength weakens. And so we may not pick up our feet as much and so you trip over the rug," said Scottsdale fire official Patty Jo Angelini.

Schraeder, who was diagnosed with an inner ear problem, hopes that she can improve her balance and quality of life through exercise and therapy.

"It's been a pain in the neck," said Schraeder. "It's been a year and a half I've been stumbling around. I go to bed now at 7 to 7:30 every night just because I'm tired of stumbling around all day."

Falls can be deadly, reports Gupta, as 30 percent of seniors who break their hip die within a year.