More than a quarter of older adults say they are in worse physical condition now than before the pandemic, suggesting a heightened potential for falls, a new national poll has found.

More than a third of older respondents to the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging said that their physical activity declined in the first 10 months of the pandemic. More than 1 in four of these adults, aged 50 and 80 years old, also said that their flexibility, muscle strength and endurance had worsened alongside their mobility, even when using a cane, walker or vehicle.

What’s more, many respondents had become more fearful of falls, including nearly half of those age 65 and older. In fact, the percentage who reported less physical activity, worsened physical conditioning or worsened mobility were most concerned about taking a tumble. Notably, a lack of companionship was also tied to these fears. 

Fear of falling strongly predicts activity declines and increases the risk of falls, according to the investigators. The poll results underscore an urgent need for pandemic-era fall risk interventions that improve seniors’ physical functioning, the report’s authors wrote. Classic falls prevention interventions such as exercise and in-home safety modifications should be given higher-than-usual priority given the scope of decline in physical functioning at this time, they urged clinicians. 

In addition, technology such as telehealth visits may help isolated older adults connect to social and medical resources. Providing older adults with opportunities for social engagement — such as community and intergenerational programs — may help reduce declines in physical functioning and falls, the investigators recommended.

“Such interventions may increase independence while reducing future disability, injury, and needs for medical care,” they wrote.

“We need to make up for lost time and get older adults on track, or back on track, with the kinds of movement and strengthening that can safeguard their independence by reducing their risk of falls or of major fall-related injuries,” said poll director Preeti Malani, M.D., of Michigan Medicine. “Even better if this happens in conjunction with social interaction.”

Falls contribute to the deaths of more than 32,000 older adults each year. The number has risen steadily as the U.S. population ages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.