BUFFALO, N.Y. — The “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercial created a famous catchphrase in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now, a new study finds far too many falls among the elderly could very well be due to the medications they’re taking.
Researchers from the University of Buffalo report that nearly every older American over 65 years-old (94%) was prescribed at least one drug that raised their risk of falling in 2017. That’s a big increase in comparison to 1999, when 57 percent of older adults received these types of medications. Troublingly, death rates due to falls more than doubled between 1999 and 2017.
Of course, just because a fall doesn’t kill an individual, that doesn’t mean there isn’t lasting damage. Especially among the elderly, a momentary loss of balance can result in any number of serious injuries. Hip fractures are a particularly life-threatening injury for seniors.
According to the CDC, Americans spend close to $50 billion each year on fall-related injuries.
“Our study indicates two trends increasing concurrently at a population level that should be examined at the individual level. Our hope is it will start more conversations on health care teams about the pros and cons of medications prescribed for vulnerable populations,” says Amy Shaver, PharmD, lead investigator and postdoctoral associate in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions, in a university release.
Which medications are causing falls?
Researchers add that the number of drugs a person takes increases the likelihood of a fall. Opioids, benzos (Xanax, Valium), antidepressants, sedative hypnotics, anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, and anti-hypertensives (for high blood pressure), are just a few examples of medications which raise fall-risk.
Between 1999 and 2017, older Americans filled out over 7.8 billion fall-risk-increasing drug prescriptions. Researchers say most of those were anti-hypertensives, but more and more antidepressants are being prescribed each year as well. In 2017, doctors prescribed 52 million antidepressants. In 1999, that number was just 12 million.
“The rise in the use of antidepressant medications seen in this study is likely related to the use of these agents as safer alternatives to older medications for conditions such as depression and anxiety,” Shaver explains. “However, it is important to note that these medications are still associated with increased risks of falls and fractures among older adults.”
Notably, study authors find older Black women are the most likely demographic to receive a prescription for these medications.
The study is published in Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety.