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A Pill to Keep Seniors on Their Feet?

Could Ritalin help keep seniors from falling?

A study in the April issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggests that the drug best known for treating attention-deficit disorder (ADD) might also offer older people some protection against falling.

Falls grow increasingly common -- and increasingly dangerous -- as we age. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one-third of all seniors will take a tumble this year. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among folks over 65; in 2005, almost 16,000 U.S. seniors died after falling.

The CDC lists steps seniors can take to avoid falling, like getting their vision checked, having a health-care professional review their medications to make sure none are making them more prone to falling, and staying physically active. The National Institute on Aging offers exercise tips for older people who want to stay upright. And President Bush last week signed into law the Safety of Seniors Act (introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md) calling for measures to educate seniors and healthcare providers about fall risks.

But taking a pill is apparently a new tactic. Seniors in the study who were given a dose of methylphenidate (Ritalin's generic name) saw immediate improvement in a number of tasks that indicate fall risk, including their gait, their speed in rising from a chair, walking a short distance, and sitting back down, and the degree of variability in their stride time. Researchers believe the medication improved performance by sharpening the study subjects' mental function.

But don't go striding swiftly to the doctor's office for a prescription just yet. The study's authors say more research into the drug's safety and efficacy among older people and a cost-benefit analysis need to be done before Ritalin is added to the roster of routine fall-prevention tools.

So, for now, sit tight. And when you get up, walk carefully, please.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 30, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Seniors  
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