Age UK has reported that obese people over the age of 65 are 31% more likely to suffer a fall than those of a healthy weight, according to new research from Australia.

The research draws on information published in the New South Wales Prevention Baseline Survey, a large Australian population study which began in 2009. A total of 5,681 people aged 65 and over were questioned about their history of falling, own perceived risk of falling, general health status, medication use and activity levels. Those who had fallen at least once in the past year as a result of accidentally losing their balance, tripping or slipping were also questioned about any injuries sustained in the falls, and whether those injuries required medical attention or hospital admission.

The results published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health highlight that falls are one of the most common causes of injury for older people and there are concerns that the number of falls-related injuries will increase with an ageing world population.

It was found that 23% of respondents with healthy weight levels had fallen once in the past year and 34% had fallen more than once. However, 30% of obese people had reported that they fell once in the past 12 months while 45% had fallen more than once. Obese patients did not have a higher risk of fall-related injuries but they were more likely to have underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Rebecca Mitchell, lead author and researcher with Neuroscience Research Australia at the University of New South Wales, said: “It is difficult to know for certain why the risk of falling increases for obese individuals, but it is likely to be as a result of reduced peripheral sensation, general physical weakness and instability when standing or walking”.

Commenting on this research, Lucie Prothero, associate in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches, said: “Falls and fall-related injuries are a common and serious problem for older people, with 30% of people over 65 and 50% of people over 80 falling at least once a year. Falls are estimated to cost the NHS more than £2.3 billion per year but the human cost of falling includes distress, pain, injury, loss of confidence, loss of independence and mortality. It comes as no real surprise that, statistically speaking, older people who are obese are at higher risk of falling. It is well-documented that high risk factors for falling include postural instability, medication for long-term health conditions such as diabetes, mobility/balance problems, health problems that may increase the risk of falling, and visual impairment. Many of these risk factors may be contributory to obesity, caused by obesity or underlying the reason for the obesity.

“We see many claims relating to falls in elderly people, either as a result of poor management in hospital or in the community-care context. While the high risk factors for the patient are often obvious, the simple yet effective measures to minimise the risk of falls occurring are not taken. For all the cases we are currently handling, there is expert evidence that the simple risk management measures were not taken. With proper care, our client’s hospital fall and injuries would not have occurred. This new research serves to highlight the increasing problem of elderly falls as the UK population ages, demonstrating that standards must improve to reduce the human and healthcare cost of falls.”