Iyengar May Help Prevent Falls in the Elderly

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” So starts an often-satirized commercial for a home monitoring service, featuring an elderly woman lying on the ground and calling for help. Despite the bad acting in this cheesy ad, falling is a very real problem for older individuals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fall-related deaths (a leading cause of injury death for those over 65) and serious hip fractures are steadily increasing. That’s no laughing matter.

Some other scary statistics courtesy of the CDC:

  • In 2003, more than 13,700 people over the age of 65 died from fall-related injuries, and around 1.8 million people in the same age group suffered nonfatal injuries that required emergency care.
  • While men are more likely to die from a fall, women have a far higher risk of falls in general. 72% of older patients admitted to the hospital for hip fractures in 2003 were women.
  • 95% of hip fractures among older adults are caused by falls, which is probably why falls are a leading threat to the independence of elderly people and their ability to function.
  • If you have fallen previously or stumble frequently, you are two to three times more likely to fall within the next year.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. A recent study at the School of Podiatric Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia suggests that yoga – specifically a modified form of the prop-heavy Iyengar style – can help reduce the risk of falls in elderly women.

It’s no secret that yoga improves balance and increases strength and stability. But for the old or infirm, ordinary yoga classes can be daunting or even dangerous. For this study, coauthor and certified Iyengar instructor Marian Garfinkel designed a program which allowed the elderly participants to slowly and carefully master poses while learning proper breathing and posture. Why Iyengar? The props used in this type of yoga (blankets, bolsters, blocks, and straps, among others) can help support the body for better balance and control, making it a perfect practice for people with stability issues.

The results of the Temple University study were encouraging. Not only did the participating women increase flexibility and strength in their legs and develop a faster, more stable stride, most of them cited increased confidence in their day-to-day walking and balancing activities. Scientists who studied these women also noticed a marked improvement in how pressure was distributed at the bottom of the foot, which affects balance.

Jinsup Song, Ph.D., Director of the Gait Study Center at Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine spearheaded this study, and also noticed a beneficial and unexpected side effect of the yoga program: the women began to look forward to the classes. “Throughout the program, participants consistently noted that they had a better outlook on their day-to-day lives,” Song said in an article for Science Daily.  “The class gave them something to look forward to; they found it engaging, and said that if they couldn’t attend a class, they definitely missed it.”

Keeping a lively social life is an important element to brain and psychological health as we age. The more content and confident we are, the greater the health benefits – happier people tend to live longer and get sick less often. Combine that with the physiological effects of yoga for improving balance and flexibility, and it seems like a no-brainer: yoga is a great prescription for keeping older people mobile, active and off the ground!

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