I had done some version of my morning walk thousands of times before I slipped on a pear and cracked two ribs on the sidewalk. I fell so fast that I didn’t have time to cushion the impact with my hands. I was stunned, but I was able to get up and walk the mile or so home.
When my wife, Bonny, came home from the health club where she works out, I sheepishly told her what had happened. She was all for taking me to the doctor, but I said it wasn’t that bad. Except when I sneezed, which I do quite often. Never sneeze when you have cracked ribs. I don’t recommend breathing either. I had trouble sleeping that night. I ended up sleeping in the reclining chair that ejects you when you get up so that I wouldn’t have to go from a prone to a sitting position on my own power.
The next day I relented and went to the doctor. X-rays were inconclusive, but the doctor said the treatment was the same whether or not my ribs were actually cracked: pain killers and no sneezing. I also wore a brace around my chest to protect my ribs and remind me not to do anything foolish. An additional check of the X-rays confirmed that I did have two cracked ribs, my first broken bones.
In retrospect, I could have been hurt a lot worse. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Letter, ninety percent of the 350,000 hip fractures that occur each year in the United States are the result of a fall, and 20–25% of people over age 50 who break a hip will die within a year. That’s frightening, but the moral is clear: If you want to live a long life, don’t fall.
I’ve read that walking on two legs is controlled falling. Since we’re not going to go back to walking on four legs anytime soon, we’d better learn how to walk safely on two.
One thing we can do is to stay in good physical condition. Exercise. Walking is my preferred exercise, which is good for leg strength, and it has the added advantage of improving ones balance. (For upbeat stories about walking, see my book, Walking the World: Memories and Adventures.)
Gain strength through resistance training, which Bonny does, and balance through yoga or tai chi exercises. Exercise and resistance training help to prevent osteoporosis, which is a problem for women more than men, and a big contributor to hip fractures. Doctors advise taking plenty of calcium and getting bone density scans.
You’ve heard the old joke that most accidents occur in the home, so don’t go there. Just maybe the accident rate has something to do with the fact that home is where we spend most of our time. So accident-proof your home. The retirement communities where my mother and mother-in-law lived had grab bars in the showers. They didn’t have bathtubs, which are particularly dangerous.
Get rid of the cords and junk you can trip over. Having lights on at night and skid-proof floors are also important. My leg strength and balance didn’t keep me from falling because the pear essentially created a zero-friction state with the sidewalk, and you can’t stand unless you have friction.
Stairs are also bad news. Our house has no stairs, and only three steps to get into and out of the front door. Many years ago, when our son, Andy, was a baby, Bonny fell down the stairs of our first house while carrying him. If she hadn’t been young and agile, they both could have been badly hurt.
If stairs are bad, ladders are a disaster. My mother, who lived on a farm, fell off a stepladder while sawing a dead branch off an old apple tree when she was in her late sixties and was knocked unconscious. There should be a law against people climbing ladders after a certain age—at least without wearing the helmets and padding that my grandsons wear when they ride their bikes and scooters.
Fall prevention should be practiced by all of us. We take walking and climbing for granted, but as we grow older we have to be aware of the downside of walking and climbing, which is falling and getting injured. This will be true as long as the law of gravity is in effect. So be careful, stay erect and live longer.