Each year, millions of elderly Americans experience a fall. Unlike when a child has a fall and brushes it off, when an older person falls, it's much more likely to result in a serious injury. Yet the majority of elderly people are too embarrassed to admit that they are unsteady on their feet and are unlikely to seek help if they have fallen or feel that a fall may be imminent.

It may not be fair, but the fact is that as we age, there are lots of things that can cause us to fall. Poor flexibility and strength, diminished eyesight, certain medications, and general aches and pains combine to make falls exponentially more likely. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once an older person falls it doubles the risk for a fall to occur again.

Falls often result in broken bones — most commonly the hips but also wrists, arms and ankles. Even these somewhat minor injuries can make it difficult for an elderly person to care for herself. Falls are also the most common cause of traumatic head injuries. These can lead to symptoms ranging from headaches and memory problems to speech impairments and paralyzation.

Once an elderly person falls one time, that person may be afraid of falling again and may limit activities as a means to avoid a fall. But this limited movement only serves to increase weakness and decrease strength in such a way to make falls even more likely.

OK, so falls are bad news. But how can an older person avoid falling? The best place to start is with a trip to the doctor for a checkup. Review your medications and ask about any possible side effects that can increase the likelihood of a fall. Ask about any supplements — such as calcium and vitamin D — that might help protect your body from falls. Also ask your doctor about strength training exercises that might be beneficial.

Next, take a good look around your house, workplace or anywhere else that you visit frequently. Fix or get rid of anything, such as throw rugs or clutter, that could cause a fall. Add grab bars in the bathroom and make sure all stairs have two railings to hold on to. Better still, check the lighting in each room and around your home to make sure you can see where you are going.

The most important thing for the elderly and anyone caring for an older person to remember is that any fall, even one that seems minor, is worthy of a checkup. Doctors can not only evaluate injuries from that fall, but they can also help to prevent future incidents by treating any underlying conditions that may have caused the fall in the first place.

What you need to know about falls and the elderly
Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among people 65 and older.