San José State University

Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley,
Tornado Alley
& the Gateway
to the Rockies

An Explanation for
Why Elderly People
Frequently Fall Down

In the past year I found that I often stumbled and fell down. I am 79 years old and attributed the falling down as an inevitable consequence of age, annoying but inconsquential. Then two weeks ago I was walking across a street with eroded asphalt. The bottom of one shoe caught a high point in the irregular asphalt surface.f I went down hard. Both knees hit hard but worst of all there was a tear in the skin of one finger of my right hand. There were no sharp edges in the eroded asphalt so it was a tear rather than a cut. I picked myself up and made it home but I was hurting.

The next day I went to a doctor to have the tear stitched closed. There was a bit of flesh protruding through the tear so I couldn't depend upon it to scab over and heal on its own. It took six stitches to close the edges of the tear together.

I was determined to end the falling down. I had thought that it had something to do with balance. But after thinking the matter over I concluded that there was no problem of balance involved. It is entirely a matter of ankles and lower legs being knocked out of place by even a glancing blow against some impediment. The lower leg consequently is not where it needs to be to support the body in its forward motion and a tumble results.

At my gymn I found the only machine that provides the exercise needed for the ankles and lower legs involves rising up on ones toes while having weight on the shoulders. When I started to use that machine I set the weights at what I expected to be able to handle. To my surprise I was not able to lift up that weight. Generally I am quite strong and am able to exercise with maximum weights on a number of machines. Those maximum weights are on the order of 250 lbs. On the machine for exercising the ankles and lower legs I could do only 45 lbs, The muscles controlling the ankles and lower legs seem very weak.

I realized that those muscles get very little exercise in normal life. They are not exercises during normal walking. It is the upper leg muscles that lift the feet off the ground during normal walking. So the muscles for the ankles and lower legs do not get exercised year after year.

When muscles are not exercised the body breaks down their tissue for the proteins to be utilized elsewhere in the body. This is called atrophy. Muscles need to be strained to their limit to signal to the body that they need even more muscle tissue.

In the four weeks since I took the hard fall I have been exercising to strengthen the muscles of my ankles and lower legs. I have not fallen once in that time.

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