Can a busy life increase your risk of a fall?
In trying to understand the yet unknown causes about why older people fall over, we looked at fatigue. It is an ideal candidate. Firstly, fatigue is a common complaint for older people; more than 50 percent of people aged 70+ report fatigue in their daily activities.
Secondly, fatigue affects sensory and movement functions that are associated with falling, such as strength, balance and limb sensation. Also, fatigue is likely to affect our cognitive function – causing us to feel too tired to think – and that is important for keeping us on our feet. It seems likely that at the end of a busy day, if you are dragging your feet and can’t think straight, as an older person, you might be at an increased risk of falling.
Previous studies have shown that repeatedly working a muscle or muscle group until fatigue will result in reduced strength, sensation, walking and balance control in older people. However, these are extreme protocols that are unlikely to accurately reflect an older person’s daily activities and are likely to miss the effects of fatigue on cognition.
We compared the effects of a busy day and a restful day on fall-related measures of physical and cognitive function in 50 older people. They undertook assessments before and after a planned busy day (where they tried to fit in as many chores or exercise as possible) and a planned rest day (in which they tried to avoid activity by relaxing, reading or watching TV etc).
Using activity monitors, we found our participants did 4,000 more steps on the busy day and reported higher feelings of fatigue. Interestingly, tests of balance, strength, reaction time and cognitive function showed no differences between the busy and rest day. However, tests of mobility and sensation were negatively affected by the busy day, compared with rest. These few differences provide little evidence that a busy day increases fall risk in older people.