COPD & Asthma Can Lead to Multiple Issues Increasing Risk of Falling

September 16th, 2015

A number of recent studies have explored the correlation between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and falls in older adults:

  • Our analysis of 145,000 Lifeline users shows that individuals with COPD fell 40 percent more than those without a chronic condition.
  • According to a report in the journal Respiratory Medicine, “Well-established risk factors for falls such as lower limb muscle weakness as well as deficits in functional performance and postural control are common in people with [COPD]. Results from a recent study suggest that COPD is one of the chronic conditions with the highest prevalence of falls, second only to osteoarthritis.”
  • Research from the University of Melbourne, Australia, looked at 41 people just over 70 years old who suffer from COPD: 40 percent of the patients had at least one fall, and most people who fell did so multiple times.

Ample research links COPD to an increased risk of balance difficulties, muscle weakness, thinning bones, blackouts and falls. Whether large or small, these studies are important because of the huge number of people worldwide who currently suffer from moderate to severe COPD — 65 million according to the World Health Organization.

It’s About Learning to Manage and Live with COPD

Joyce Johnson is a respiratory therapist and Director of Outreach and Cessation Programs at the Breathing Association in Columbus, Ohio. The educational/outreach organization began 110 years ago in response to the tuberculosis epidemic sweeping the country at the time. The association now offers a number of programs to people with COPD across the Columbus area.

Johnson says that there is one simple, often neglected reason that people with COPD fall. “They often sit longer than people without breathing problems, making it harder for them to get up and more out-of-breath when they do. Then panic takes over quickly, further increasing the likelihood of a fall. Panic and anxiety go hand-in-hand with COPD. And people with COPD often also have heart disease, making it that much harder for them to breathe.”

She also notes that COPD patients often have a lot of respiratory equipment, which can be a challenge to maneuver around. They can have up to 50 feet of hose in the house, making it all too easy to trip, she says.

Paul Adams, Senior Director of Product Management for Lifeline, also notes that the medications people take for COPD and asthma can significantly increase the risk of falling. “For example, medications for asthma often tend to be stimulants. They can make people move more quickly and lose their balance. And of course, just finding it difficult to breathe can cause someone to panic, also increasing the risk of a fall.”

Tips for Older Adults with Breathing Issues

Johnson says there are a number of ways to help asthma and COPD patients live with their disease and decrease the risk of falling. Those include:

  • Education: “We offer a number of educational programs to help people understand how lungs are supposed to work and how to make their own work more effectively,” Johnson says.
  • Support: It helps patients to be part of a support group, where they can get support and learn coping skills.
  • Learning to Relax: Johnson and her team teach patients breathing and relaxation exercises.
  • Smoking Cessation: If you have COPD and smoke, it’s critical to quit as soon as possible. The American Lung Association offers a number of programs to help people give up cigarettes.

And of course, preparing in advance in case a fall does happen is a critical part of allowing people with COPD and asthma to live independently and with confidence. Using a medical alert device can help reduce panic and anxiety over a potential fall and give peace of mind that help is accessible should an emergency occur.

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