When designing fall prevention, gender matters, according to new study

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

January 10, 2014
  Wenjun-Li_LN 
   Wenjun Li, PhD

Falls among the elderly are a leading cause of disability and even death. The findings of a new UMass Medical School study may help the elderly avoid such injuries, by examining the differences in falls between men and women.

The study, led by biostatistician and health geographer Wenjun Li, PhD, shows that women are more likely to fall indoors while men more often fall outdoors.

“This study reports novel findings on significant sex differences in rates of falling in various indoor and outdoor places and when performing select activities,” said Dr. Li, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Health. “Such information is critical to the development of future falls prevention programs that account for sex differences in behaviors, space use and activity patterns.”

Li is principal investigator for the study conducted with collaborators from the Institute for Aging Research, Hebrew Senior Life and Harvard Medical School. Published online Dec. 6 by BMC Geriatrics, their findings highlight the need for focused fall prevention strategies for men and women.

“Men and women tend to differ in where and how they spend their time as well as in many physical characteristics, and these differences are reflected in the circumstances of their falls and resulting injuries,” researchers noted.

Falls were categorized by activity and place of falling and compared between men and women. Although men and women did not significantly differ in total physical activity, women had lower rates of outdoor falls and greater fall rates indoors compared to men, particularly in the kitchen and while performing household activities.

“When delivering fall interventions to older women, these issues should be specifically addressed,” said Li. “For example, older women should be advised to wear slip-resistant indoor footwear, or consider installing slip-resistant flooring in their homes.”

The gender differences study expands on previous research by Li et al., which found that indoor falls were associated with disability, poor health and an inactive lifestyle, while outdoor falls were associated with an active lifestyle and average or better-than-average health.

“Our previous studies have indicated the importance of determining risk factors, circumstances and consequences of indoor and outdoor falls independently when falls prevention programs are formulated,” Li noted. “We hope to develop data-driven approaches to delivering interventions that are tailored to individuals’ behavior, activity and risk profiles.”

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