An Often Overlooked Fall Hazard

A small group of people playing a game on their smart phones and walking around the city.

This photo could have been taken on any city street today. These pedestrians might be texting, or maybe they’re engrossed in Pokémon Go. Whatever draws them to their smartphones and other devices is also pulling their attention away from walking safely ... and they are likely headed for a fall.

Anyone with an elderly relative, and certainly anyone who works for a senior care organization, knows that falls are very dangerous for older adults. The National Council on Aging reports that every 11 seconds, a person age 65+ is treated in the emergency room for a fall injury; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall. When a senior is no longer able to live independently, the reason often arises from the results of a fall injury.

Of course, although we think of fall injuries as primarily a problem for seniors, falls affect people of every age. A study from Purdue University headed by kinesiology professor Shirley Rietdyk found that younger people actually fall more often than seniors, and falling is still the third leading cause of unintentional injuries among young people. But when seniors fall, they’re more likely to be injured.

One fall risk for college-age people will probably come as no surprise: the Purdue researchers found that alcohol was involved in 9 percent of those falls. This risk factor also applies to their grandparents. Dr. Thomas Esposito of Loyola University Health System in Illinois found that 38 percent of all fatally injured adult pedestrians had a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 percent, which is the legal definition for impaired driving in most states. Said Dr. Esposito, “If they had been driving and were stopped by police, they would have been arrested for driving under the influence.”

Yet alcohol wasn’t the No. 1 culprit in the collegians’ falls. Rietdyk’s team found that many falls were caused by talking on the phone or texting while walking (though the injuries sustained during texting often involved running into something rather than falling). Rietdyk said, “We have all heard the expression, ‘He can’t chew gum and walk at the same time.’ Similarly, we expect that talking while walking would be automatic. However, this multi-tasking is cognitively demanding, requiring the simultaneous management of language formulation, speech generation, terrain navigation, and balance control.”

Seniors, too, are experiencing falls due to distracted walking—sometimes when a careless younger person runs into them, but more often these days, due to their own texting or talking on their phone. Ohio State University professor Jack L. Nasar reported, “The role of cell phones in distracted driving injuries and death gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so. But we need to also consider the danger cell phone use poses to pedestrians.”

Nasar and his research team found that up to two million injuries each year are related to talking on the phone, texting, gaming or even posting to Facebook while walking. Public agencies are starting to take notice of this problem; the city of Chongqing, China even set up “phone” and “no phone” lanes on some sidewalks!

The moral of the story? It’s best to “pull over” before you pull out your smartphone, no matter what you’re planning to do with it.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2016