Clinical Guidelines for Family Physicians

USPSTF: Fall prevention in the elderly? Think exercise


The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) commissioned a systematic evidence review of 62 randomized clinical trials with a total of 35,058 patients to gather evidence on the effectiveness and harms of primary care–relevant interventions to prevent falls in community-dwelling adults 65 years or older.1This 2018 statement recommends exercise interventions (B recommendation), advises selective offering of multifactorial interventions based on individual circumstances (C recommendation), and discourages the use of vitamin D supplementation (D recommendation).2 It thereby has updated its 2012 statement, in which exercise or physical therapy and vitamin D supplementation were recommended to prevent falls.


Dr. Neil Skolnik (left) and Dr. Aarisha Shrestha

Dr. Neil Skolnik (left) and Dr. Aarisha Shrestha

Falls are the leading cause of injury-related morbidity and mortality among older adults in the United States. In 2014, almost a third of community-dwelling adults 65 years or older reported falling, resulting in 29 million falls. More than 90% of hip fractures are causes by falls, and 25% of older adults who sustain a hip fracture die within 6 months. Of note, USPSTF has issued two related but separate recommendation statements on the prevention of fractures. Reducing the incidence of falls would not only decrease morbidity burden but also improve the socialization and functioning of older adults.

Scope of review

Out of the 62 randomized clinical trials, 65% of intervention studies targeted patients at high risk of falls; they were most commonly identified by history of prior falls, but mobility, gait, and balance impairment were often also considered. Specific medical diagnoses that could affect fall-related outcomes (osteoporosis, visual impairment, neurocognitive disorders) were excluded. This review did not look at the outcome of studies in populations who were vitamin D deficient because, in this population, vitamin D supplementation would be considered treatment rather than prevention. Of note, women constituted the majority in most studies.

Exercise interventions

USPSTF found five good-quality and 16 fair-quality studies, which altogether included a total of 7,297 patients, that reported on various exercise interventions to prevent falls; altogether, these studies included a total of 7,297 patients. Of the studies, 57% recruited populations at high risk for falls with a mean age ranging from 68 to 88 years. Exercise interventions included supervised individual classes, group classes, and physical therapy. The most common exercise component was gait, balance, and functional training; other common components included, in order of frequency, were resistance training, flexibility training, and endurance training. Most common frequency and duration were three sessions per week for 12 months. Exercise interventions reduced the number of persons experiencing a fall (relative risk 0.89; 95% confidence interval, 0.81-0.97), reduced the number of injurious falls (incidence rate ratio, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.73-0.90), and revealed a statistically insignificant reduction in the number of falls. Reported adverse events were minor and most commonly included pain or bruising related to exercise.

Multifactorial interventions

USPSTF found seven good-quality and 19 fair-quality studies that reported on multifactorial interventions; altogether, these studies included a total of 15,506 patients. Of the studies, 73% recruited populations at high risk for falls, and the mean age ranged from 71.9 to 85 years. Multifactorial interventions had two components:

  • Initial assessment to screen for modifiable risk factors for falls (multidisciplinary comprehensive geriatric assessment or specific assessment that evaluated various factors, such as balance, gait, vision, cardiovascular health, medication, environment, cognition, and psychological health).
  • Subsequent customized interventions (group or individual exercise, cognitive-behavioral therapy, nutrition, environmental modification, physical or occupational therapy, social or community services, and referral to specialists).

While studies found that multifactorial interventions reduced the number of falls (IRR, 0.79; 95% CI, 0.68-0.91), they did not reduce the number of people who experienced a fall (RR, 0.95; 95% CI, 0.89-1.01) or an injurious fall (RR, 0.94; 95% CI, 0.85-1.03). Four studies reported minor harm, mostly bruising, from exercise. Therefore, USPSTF has recommended that clinicians take into consideration patient’s medical history (including prior falls and comorbidities) to selectively offer multifactorial interventions.

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