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Exercise can reduce falls in older people by nearly a quarter, global study finds

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Exercise programmes can reduce falls in older people by nearly a quarter, new international research suggests.

The study, produced by researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Sydney, summarises the results from 108 randomised controlled trials with 23,407 participants from across 25 countries.

The average age of the participants in the study was 76, and three quarters of them were women.

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The study, published in the Cochrane Library, looked at two different ways of measuring falls. Firstly, the researchers found that exercise reduces the number of falls over time by around a quarter (23% reduction).

This means that if there were 850 falls among 1,000 older people doing no fall-preventive exercise during one year, there would be 195 fewer falls among people who were undertaking fall-prevention exercise.

They also found that exercise reduces the number of people experiencing one or more falls by around 15%. For example, if 480 out of 1000 people experienced one or more falls over one year, participating in exercise programmes would reduce the number of fallers by 72 people.

The results of the study varied, so the researchers assessed different types of exercise programmes to see how they compared.

They found evidence to suggest that programmes that mainly involve balance and functional exercises reduce falls, while there was less certainty about programmes that include multiple exercise categories (most commonly balance and functional exercises plus resistance exercises).

The certainty of the evidence for the overall effect of exercise on preventing falls was high. However, the findings that exercise reduces fractures and the need for medical attention are less certain, reflecting in part the relatively small number of studies and participants for those outcomes.

Author, Professor Cathie Sherrington from The University of Sydney, Institute for Musculoskeletal Health said: “This evidence helps build an even stronger picture that exercise can help prevent older people having falls. It also illustrates which types of exercise can be beneficial. It is well known that keeping active promotes good health but this review pinpoints which types of exercise are more likely to be effective for preventing falls.”

Falls are a leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide. Older adults suffer the greatest number of fatal falls and over 37 million falls are severe enough to require medical attention each year.

“More work is needed to establish the impact of exercise on fall-related fractures and falls requiring medical attention because such falls have major impacts for the individual and are particularly costly to health systems. Further research is also required to establish the effectiveness of fall prevention programmes in emerging economies where the burden of falls is increasing more rapidly than in developed countries due to rapidly ageing populations,” Sherrington added.

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Sarah Clarke

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