Falling is considered to be broadly dangerous in older adults, since it can cause a major bone fracture or head injury — leading to physical decline that may not be reversible. When it comes to fall prevention, there are many recommendations from experts that apply to some or all older adults — such as having your doctor evaluate your risk for falling, evaluating whether any medicines you take could make you drowsy or dizzy, doing exercises to improve your balance, having your vision checked, and taking steps to make your home safer. Making your home more fall-resistant may include getting rid of tripping hazards (such as area rugs), adding grab bars to your shower and bathroom, adding railings to stairways, ensuring adequate lighting, keeping items within easy reach so that you don’t need to use a stool or ladder, and using nonslip mats in the shower or bathtub.
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For the latest study, researchers were interested in how taking two widely recommended dietary supplements — vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids — might be related to the risk of falling in generally healthy and active older adults. The participants were 2,157 adults ages 70 and older who lived in their community (not in any kind of care facility) and had no major health events in the five years before enrolling in the study. Participants were recruited between December 2012 and November 2014 from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, and Portugal. Each participant was randomly assigned to a few different options as part of the study. Some participants took 2,000 IU per day of vitamin D, some took 1 gram per day of omega-3 fatty acids (typically as fish oil), some took both supplements, and some took a placebo (inactive pill). In addition to these dietary supplement assignments, participants were randomly assigned either to take part in a simple home exercise program aimed at building balance and strength or to continue with their regular physical activity habits. Each of these interventions lasted for about three years.
Overall, 88% of participants completed the study, leaving 1,900 that the results were based on. The average age of these remaining participants was 74.9 years at the beginning of the study, and about 62% were women. During the follow-up period, a total of 3,333 falls were recorded among 1,311 participants. The overall incidence of falls was 0.56 per person per year, as noted in a Healio article on the study.
Omega-3 supplementation linked to lower risk of falls
Regardless of whether participants had adequate blood levels of vitamin D at the beginning of the study, taking the vitamin D supplement was not significantly linked to the risk of falling. The home exercise program also had no overall benefit for fall prevention, and may have actually increased the risk for falling in some groups of participants — particularly men, who were 23% more likely to fall if they were assigned to the exercise program; participants under age 75, who were 16% more likely to fall; and participants who had already experienced a fall before study enrollment, who were 17% more likely to fall if they took part in the exercise program.
The main bright spot in the study’s results, the researchers found, was that participants who were assigned to take the omega-3 supplement were 10% less likely to fall over the course of the study. This benefit was even greater for certain groups of participants — including women, who were 12% less likely to fall if they took the omega-3 supplement; participants ages 75 and older, who were 19% less likely to fall; participants who started out with higher blood levels of omega-3s, who were 17% less likely to fall; and participants who were most physically active, who were 16% less likely to fall if they took the omega-3 supplement.
The researchers concluded that while it appears to be important to get enough vitamin D to avoid insufficiency, the high-dose formulation included in the study showed no benefit for fall prevention. Taking omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, was shown to modestly reduce the risk for falling, particularly among participants who were more physically active — demonstrating that omega-3 supplementation may be an effective way to reduce the risk for falling even in older people who are already generally active and healthy.