Being fearful of falling can lead to actual falls among older people, irrespective of their real physical risk, new research finds.

The study, led by UNSW Professor Stephen Lord from Neuroscience Research Australia, assessed 500 Australians aged 70 to 90 and found that a large number of elderly people are overly fearful of falling.

Also involved in the study were Professor Henry Brodaty and Scientia Professor Perminder Sachdev from UNSW's School Psychiatry.

"Fear leads to a downward spiral for older people," says Professor Lord. "When older people fear falling, they become less active and lose strength and balance. This inevitably means they begin to fall more often, which can lead to a loss of independence and need for care in a nursing home."

Fear of falling is common in older people and is associated with poor balance, as well as anxiety and depression.

The study found that while most older people have an accurate perception of their fall risk, up to one third of elderly people either underestimate or overestimate their risk.

Professor Lord says older people can reduce their risk of falls by exercising for an hour at least twice a week and improving their balance through Tai Chi or other standing exercises that require coordination, agility and quick stepping.

"We think that having a positive outlook helps people keep active, which protects against falls," he says.

The next study will look at preventing fear of falling through cognitive behavioral therapy, combined with exercises to improve balance.

The study was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

For the full story go to the Neuroscience Research Australia newsroom.

Media contact: Maryke Steffens | 02 9399 1271