Protect Yourself From Winter Slips and Falls
This blog was originally posted in Consumer Reports on Health.
T he icy ground outside your door, on sidewalks, and in parking lots can make winter a treacherous time. And the older you get, the more difficult it can be to recover from slips and falls, says Jeremy Crenshaw, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Delaware.
Stronger muscles reduce the likelihood of slips and falls by making you better able to keep your balance. Regular exercise, including strength training and stretching, can help. Here, more tips for avoiding slips and falls this winter:
Wear the Right Shoes
“Deeply grooved, nonskid rubber treads can help to avoid slips and trips on the ice and snow,” says Heidi White, M.D., a geriatrician and associate professor of medicine at Duke University. Wear lace-up shoes that fit snugly, and consider adding traction with slip-on ice cleats, which are often available at sporting-goods stores.
After you’ve been out, take off wet shoes so that you don’t track slippery water around the house. Don’t go barefoot though; a pair of shoes will keep you steadier on your feet indoors.
Try to avoid walking on icy patches, and remember that hazards—including ice and uneven ground—can hide under snow and slush. If you must walk over snow or ice, White says, “take short, flat steps, like a penguin.”
Be especially careful if you have dulled foot sensation due to diabetes, which can impair your balance. Climbing stairs? Face the railing, hold on with both hands, and step sideways to avoid slips and falls.
You may think a cane or walker will make it harder to navigate patches of snow or slush, even if you normally use one of these devices. But those are the times when extra support can help the most, White says. Consider adding an ice-gripping tip (available online and at medical supply stores) if you use a cane, which will provide additional stability.
Salt the path from your door if you know bad weather is coming. And consider carrying a zip-top bag filled with kitty litter, which you can sprinkle on slick surfaces you encounter.
People with vision problems are especially prone to falls, so make sure your eyeglass prescription is up to date. As you bundle up under scarves and hats, it’s also important that your sightlines are unobstructed and that you can see where you’re walking.
Keeping Warm Helps Too
In addition to the obvious challenges of ice and snow, the cold temperatures can cause joints and muscles to stiffen up. And that makes it easier to lose your footing.
Staying warm can become harder with age, however, as your metabolism slows and the fat layer under your skin thins. These tips can help:
Dress right. Wear loose layers of clothing. Tight garments can impair your circulation, says Sharon Brangman, M.D., chief of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Wool or silk will hold heat better than cotton and won’t absorb moisture. When you go outside, add a winter coat and always include a hat, scarf, and gloves—extremities get coldest first. Just don’t wear anything that will restrict your movement.
Avoid alcohol. Though alcohol can feel warming, it actually lowers your core body temperature and can cause you to lose body heat more quickly. So opt for hot beverages like cider, but skip the brandy.
Watch for danger signs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cold causes a higher proportion of deaths among older adults, who are especially susceptible to hypothermia (when the body’s temperature falls to dangerous levels). Have your phone with you at all times so that you can call for help if you fall on the ice or get stuck in the snow while driving. And keep your home thermostat set at 68° F or higher.
Symptoms of hypothermia include confusion, slurred speech, shivering, arm and leg stiffness, and slow reaction times. Call 911 or go to an emergency room if you suspect you have it.