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Fall rate nearly 50% among older Americans with dementia

Targeting specific fall-risk factors could improve fall screening and prevention strategies.

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A new study from researchers in Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, has shed light on the many and varied fall-risk factors facing older adults in community-living environments.

With falls causing millions of injuries in older adults each year, it is an increasingly important public health concern. 

Older adults living with dementia have twice the risk of falling and three times the risk of incurring serious fall-related injuries, like fractures, compared to those without dementia.

For older adults with dementia, even minor fall-related injuries can lead to hospitalisation and nursing home admission.

Recently published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, the research led by Safiyyah Okoye, PhD, an assistant professor at Drexel, and Jennifer L Wolff, PhD, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, examined a comprehensive set of potential fall-risk factors — including environmental factors, in addition to health and function — in older community-living adults in the United States, both with and without dementia.

“Examining the multiple factors, including environmental ones like a person’s home or neighbourhood, is necessary to inform fall-risk screening, caregiver education and support, and prevention strategies for this high-risk population of older adults,” said Okoye.

Despite awareness of this elevated risk, there are very few studies that have examined fall-risk factors among people with dementia living in a community setting (not nursing homes or other residential facilities).

The studies that do exist, overwhelmingly focus on health and function factors. According to the authors, this is the first nationally representative study to compare a comprehensive set of potential risk factors for falls for older Americans living with dementia to those without dementia.

The research team examined data from the 2015 and 2016 National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS), a population-based survey of health and disability trends and trajectories of adults 65 and older in the US. They were able to obtain potential sociodemographic, health and function predictors of falls, as well as potential social and physical environmental predictors.

Data from NHATS showed that nearly half (45.5 per cent) of older adults with dementia had experienced one or more falls in 2016, compared to less than one third (30.9 per cent) of older adults without dementia.

Among older adults living with dementia, three characteristics stood out as significantly associated with a greater likelihood of falls: a history of falling the previous year; impaired vision; and living with others (versus alone). 

For older adults without dementia, financial hardship, a history of falling, fear of falling, poor lower extremity performance, depressive symptoms and home disrepair were strongly associated with increased risk of falls.

While prior history of falling and vision impairment are well-known risk factors for falls among older adults in general; the researchers’ findings indicate that these were strong risk factors for falls among people living with dementia. 

According to the team, this suggests that people living with dementia should be assessed for the presence of these characteristics. If they’re present, the individuals should receive further assessment and treatment, including examining their feet and footwear, assessing their environment and ability to carry out daily living activities, among other items.

The finding that older adults living with dementia who lived with a spouse or with non-spousal others had higher odds of experiencing a fall, compared to those who lived alone, highlights that caregiver support and education are understudied components of fall prevention programs for older adults with dementia who live with family caregivers, and deserve greater attention from clinicians, researchers and policy makers.

“Overall, our findings demonstrate the importance of understanding and addressing fall-risk among older adults living with dementia,” said Okoye.

“It confirms that fall-risk is multidimensional and influenced by environmental context in addition to health and function factors.”

The results of the study indicate the need to further investigate and design fall-prevention interventions, specifically for people living with dementia.

Okoye added: “To decrease the high rates of falls among older adults with dementia, additional tailored fall-risk screening and fall-prevention interventions should be developed and tested.”

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Air pollution linked to increased hospital admission for heart and lung diseases

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Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution is linked to an increased risk of hospital admission for major heart and lung diseases, find two large US studies, published by The BMJ.

Together, the results suggest that no safe threshold exists for heart and lung health.

According to the Global Burden of Disease study, exposure to PM2.5 accounts for an estimated 7.6% of total global mortality and 4.2% of global disability adjusted life years (a measure of years lived in good health).

In light of this extensive evidence, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated the air quality guidelines in 2021, recommending that an annual average PM2.5 levels should not exceed 5 μg/m3 and 24 hour average PM2.5 levels should not exceed 15 μg/m3 on more than 3-4 days each year.

In the first study, researchers linked average daily PM2.5 levels to residential zip codes for nearly 60 million US adults (84 per cent white, 55 per cent women) aged 65 and over from 2000 to 2016. They then used Medicare insurance data to track hospital admissions over an average of eight years.

After accounting for a range of economic, health and social factors, average PM2.5 exposure over three years was associated with increased risks of first hospital admissions for seven major types of cardiovascular disease – ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, heart failure, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, valvular heart disease, and thoracic and abdominal aortic aneurysms.

Compared with exposures of 5 μg/m3 or less (the WHO air quality guideline for annual PM2.5), exposures between 9 and 10 μg/m3, which encompassed the US national average of 9.7 μg/m3 during the study period, were associated with a 29% increased risk of hospital admission for cardiovascular disease.

On an absolute scale, the risk of hospital admission for cardiovascular disease increased from 2.59% with exposures of 5 μg/m3 or less to 3.35% at exposures between 9 and 10 μg/m3.

“This means that if we were able to manage to reduce annual PM2.5 below 5 µg/m3, we could avoid 23% in hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease,” say the researchers.*

These cardiovascular effects persisted for at least three years after exposure to PM2.5, and susceptibility varied by age, education, access to healthcare services, and area deprivation level.

The researchers say their findings suggest that no safe threshold exists for the chronic effect of PM2.5 on overall cardiovascular health, and that substantial benefits could be attained through adherence to the WHO air quality guideline.

“On February 7, 2024, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated the national air quality standard for annual PM2.5 level, setting a stricter limit at no more than 9 µg/m3. This is the first update since 2012. However, it is still considerably higher than the 5 µg/m3 set by WHO. Obviously, the newly published national standard was not sufficient for the protection of public health,” they add.*

In the second study, researchers used county-level daily PM2.5 concentrations and medical claims data to track hospital admissions and emergency department visits for natural causes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease for 50 million US adults aged 18 and over from 2010 to 2016.

During the study period, more than 10 million hospital admissions and 24 million emergency department visits were recorded.

They found that short term exposure to PM2.5, even at concentrations below the new WHO air quality guideline limit, was statistically significantly associated with higher rates of hospital admissions for natural causes, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease, as well as emergency department visits for respiratory disease.

For example, on days when daily PM2.5 levels were below the new WHO air quality guideline limit of 15 μg/m3, an increase of 10 μg/m3 in PM2.5 was associated with 1.87 extra hospital admissions per million adults aged 18 and over per day.

The researchers say their findings constitute an important contribution to the debate about the revision of air quality limits, guidelines, and standards.

Both research teams acknowledge several limitations such as possible misclassification of exposure and point out that other unmeasured factors may have affected their results. What’s more, the findings may not apply to individuals without medical insurance, children and adolescents, and those living outside the US.

However, taken together, these new results provide valuable reference for future national air pollution standards.

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Home health care linked to increased hospice use at end-of-life – study

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Patients who had previously received home health care had a higher likelihood of accessing hospice care at the end of their life, according to a new study.

Researchers, whose findings are published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, examined the home health care and hospice care experiences of more than two million people.

Using Medicare data, researchers found when individuals received home health care before the last year of their life, they had higher odds of using hospice care than those who had never received home health care.

Researchers said this association underscores the potential benefits of receiving end-of-life care in the comfort of one’s home.

As the aged population increases, the findings also show the need for more resources in the health care sector and staff training in end-of-life care.

Home health care services including skilled nursing, therapy, social work and aide services are used to maintain functioning or slow decline in health. Hospice care provides similar services but is intended for those with life expectancies of six months or less and is focused on pain relief, minimising hospital visits and providing comfort and support. Both services provide patients the opportunity to receive more personalised care in their home.

Researchers say home-based care also encourages greater involvement of family caregivers in the caregiving process.

Olga Jarrín, senior author of the study, the Hunterdon Professor of Nursing Research at the Rutgers School of Nursing and director of the Community Health and Aging Outcomes Laboratory within the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, commented: “In addition to benefits for the patient, hospice care also provides resources and support to help family caregivers cope with the physical, emotional and practical challenges of caring for a loved one at the end of life.”

Hyosin (Dawn) Kim, research assistant professor at Oregon State University and first author of the study, added: “By providing personalised care, reducing hospitalisations, fostering family involvement and support, and improving symptom management, home-based care can enhance the quality of end-of-life experiences for patients with terminal illnesses and their families.”

 

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Sleep programme shows promise in those with memory problems – study

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A new study has shown promising results in improving sleep and quality of life in individuals living with memory problems.

A group of researchers from Penn Nursing, Penn Medicine, Rutgers School of Nursing, and Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, have delved into the efficacy of a non-pharmacological approach in a trial known as the Healthy Patterns Sleep Program.

The study involved 209 pairings of community-residing individuals with memory problems and their care partners. Participants were assigned to either the Healthy Patterns Sleep Program, which consisted of one-hour home activity sessions administered over four weeks, or a control group that received sleep hygiene training, plus education on home safety and health promotion.

The Healthy Patterns Sleep Program trained care partners in timed daily activities such as reminiscence in the morning, exercise in the afternoon and sensory activities in the evening that can decrease daytime sleepiness and improve nighttime sleep quality.

Nancy Hodgson, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Claire M. Fagin Leadership Professor in Nursing and Chair of Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences, who led the study, said: “The results from this study provide fundamental new knowledge regarding the effects of timing activity participation and can lead to structured, replicable treatment protocols to address sleep disturbances. Overall, the Healthy Patterns program resulted in improved QOL compared to an attention-control group.”

The findings also indicate that, compared to a control group, the four-week Healthy Patterns program improved sleep quality among persons living with memory issues who had depressive symptoms or poor sleep quality.  The study indicates the Healthy Patterns Intervention might need a longer dose to induce improvements in other sleep-wake activity metrics.

The study’s significance lies in its confirmation of the effectiveness of behavioural interventions in not only improving quality of life and addressing sleep quality issues in this population, but also potentially reducing care partner burden and overall care costs for persons living at home with memory problems.

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