Watch your step: Purdue researcher finds sex, medications and physical activity affect fall frequency

New research from Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences revealed that young adults’ sex, medications and physical activity affect their falling patterns. (Unsplash)

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

Falls are a leading cause of injury in almost all ages in the United States, according to nonfatal injury data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but falls in young adults have been insufficiently researched. New research from the Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences reveals that young adults’ sex, number of prescription medications, and amount of physical activity have a significant effect on their falling patterns.

Shirley Rietdyk, professor of health and kinesiology in Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Shirley Rietdyk, professor of health and kinesiology in Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Published in PLOS ONE, the observational study by Shirley Rietdyk, professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, examined the frequency and circumstances in which young adults fall, finding that men were more likely to report falls while women were more likely to trip without falling.

These findings offer opportunities for more research to investigate the causes of these occurrences, which could lead to the development of interventions that can be implemented across the life span before a significant balance problem exists.

Over the course of 16 weeks, participants in the study were asked to respond to a daily email and answer if they had slipped, tripped or fallen in the past 24 hours. If they answered yes, more questions about the circumstances of the incident were asked. Participants were also asked to complete an initial survey in which they answered demographic questions about their age, sex, height, weight, physical activity and the number of medications they were taking.

Rietdyk has been studying balance and mobility in older adults since the 1980s, but she didn’t begin her research in young adults until recent years.

“When people find out that you study falls, they have a fall story to share — their grandmother fell and broke her hip, or their wife was gardening and she fell over, or they tell their own fall stories,” Rietdyk said. “What I noticed was that undergraduate students were telling me about their falls, and I thought that was unusual.”

This research goes beyond the initial pilot study Rietdyk and her team conducted in 2016, which identified that younger adults fall more frequently than expected. The recent study expanded the number of participants from 94 undergraduate college students to 343, which gave the researchers enough data to support their earlier findings and go beyond them to compare the falling patterns of young women to young men.

“Since we published our first paper in 2016, other authors using different approaches are demonstrating parallel observations: Falls are not a trivial problem for young adults,” Rietdyk said.

The study also included factors like drinking alcohol and texting, which many people assume cause falls in college students, Rietdyk explained. While substance use contributed to several falls — roughly 11% — very few falls resulted from texting because Rietdyk noted that individuals are often walking slower during this activity and are therefore better equipped to recover. The few falls that did occur while texting typically happened on stairs, which require more environmental attention to foot placement.

However, even taking into consideration the falls with these causes, more than 80% of the falls were not caused by these factors, indicating perhaps that something larger was at play.

Rietdyk found several surprising observations in the study. One of these was that several participants experienced nine or more falls in a semester — about two falls per month — and all of these participants were female students. Another was that a higher number of medications resulted in a higher number of falls in young adults, a pattern that had previously been detected in older adults but not in a group that only included young adults.

Based on the results of this study, Rietdyk said she is interested in further investigating the difference between women and men related to falls, noting that if the research can pinpoint what’s happening in younger adults, it may also inform what is happening in older adults to potentially offer solutions to improve overall balance and reduce the number of falls.

“If you talk to older adults, a number of them will self-identify as frequent fallers, but then they tell me that they fell a lot when they were younger as well,” Rietdyk said. “That piece really interests me. Is there some sort of underlying mechanism that predisposes someone to falling that continues throughout the life span?”