SOURCES: Robert Glatter, M.D., emergency physician, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Gisele Wolf-Klein, M.D., director, geriatric education, Northwell Health, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; May 6, 2016, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
THURSDAY, May 5, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Millions of American seniors have severe vision impairment, and with it comes the risk of a fall that could lead to disability, a new report finds.
About 2.8 million seniors are thought to have severe vision impairment -- defined as either blindness or difficulty seeing, even with eyeglasses, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 1.3 million of these older, vision-challenged Americans fell at least once in 2014, the new CDC report said.
Experts say the link between vision and balance is crucial, especially as people age.
Falls "represent a major source of disability and can lead to prolonged recoveries and lengthy stays in hospitals and long-term care facilities," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
He said that hip and leg or arm fractures, as well as wounds that are slow to heal, mean falling can be disabling or even life-threatening for older people.
Vision checks are key to prevention, Glatter said. "Monitoring changes in visual acuity is a critical aspect of screening in older persons who live independently, for fall risk -- especially if they use canes or walkers," he said.
The study was led by CDC investigator John Crews and involved 2014 federal data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
Crews and colleagues found that fall risk among seniors rose significantly as vision failed. For example, while about 28 percent of seniors without severe vision trouble experienced at least one fall in 2014, that number jumped to almost 47 percent in people who had such eyesight issues.
Other health issues, such as chronic illness, gait problems, leg weakness and the use of multiple medicines, could push the risk of falling even higher, the researchers said.
And the financial cost? One 2013 study estimated the direct medical cost of falls among seniors at $34 billion annually, the researchers said.
Luckily, simple prevention methods mean that many falls don't have to happen.
Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein directs geriatric education at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y. She offered up a 'Top Ten' list of ways people can avoid dangerous falls.
The new study was published in the May 6 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Find out more about falls prevention at the National Council on Aging.