A new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that middle-aged and older adults with arthritis are significantly more likely to fall and hurt themselves than those without arthritis. But fall-prevention programs can cut the risk of falls by up to a third.

Falls are the leading cause of injury-related illness and death in the U.S. They can result in hip fractures, brain injuries, decline in functional abilities and reduction in social and physical activities. One risk factor for falling is poor neuromuscular function, which is common in people with arthritis. People with arthritis make up an estimated 22.7 percent of the adult population in the U.S.

“It is a huge problem. We know that arthritis leads to poor neuromuscular function – poor balance and walking speed, and these contribute to the amount of falls among people with arthritis,” explains Kamil E. Barbour PhD, an epidemiologist in the Arthritis Program at the CDC.

The findings, published in the May 2 issue of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, are based on 2012 telephone surveys with more than 330,000 people, age 45 years or older, in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam. Participants were asked their age, whether they had experienced a fall in the 12 months prior to the survey and whether they had been injured due to the fall, among other questions. Participants were defined as having arthritis if they answered “yes” to the question, “Have you ever been told by a doctor or other health professional that you have some form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, or fibromyalgia?” Results were broken down by state.

Among the findings:

  • Adults with arthritis were almost 30 percent more likely to have had one fall in the previous 12 months compared to people without arthritis. (15.5 percent of adults with arthritis experienced one fall vs. 12.1 percent of those without arthritis)
  • Adults with arthritis were almost two-and-a-half times more likely to have fallen more than twice than adults without arthritis (21 percent vs. 9 percent)
  • Adults with arthritis were two-and-a-half times more likely to have been injured due to a fall than adults without arthritis (16 percent vs. 6.5 percent)

“Not only are these people falling but it appears a large percentage of them are being injured, and these are big injuries. These are hip fractures and brain injuries and physical and functional declines,” says Barbour. “And if you fall, it can make you scared to participate in activities, and [it can] have psychological implications, too, as well as also being costly. It’s a huge burden.” The CDC estimates that falls result in direct medical costs of almost $30 billion per year.