During a time when the U.S. is so focused on reducing the cost of overall medical expenses, Palmer physical therapist Anne Thomas shared a staggering number that, according to medical professionals, could be significantly reduced through preventative care: $67.7 billion.

That, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will be the total cost for fall injuries experienced by older Americans (65+) in the year 2020. Medicare and Medicaid will cover about three-quarters of these costs.

“This is a shocking amount of money, but the burden felt by older Americans goes beyond the pocketbook,” said Thomas, owner of Body in Balance Physical Therapy in Palmer. “Fall-related injury is a quality of life issue that affects people more and more as they age due to factors related to aging – factors like loss of muscle tone and strength, slower reflexes, less coordination, eyesight issues, and even the side effects of medication.”

One out of every four Americans 65 and older experience falls each year, says the CDC, leading to more than 2.8 injuries which span a spectrum from bumps, bruises and sprains to broken bones and head trauma.

“Just the fear of falling as you age, in fact, can result in limited activity, which only perpetuates that problem,” Thomas said. “The lack of activity leads to a loss of muscle tone, good balance, and bone density, which can actually increase the risk of falls.”

But people of all ages can vastly reduce the risk of falling through exercise that focuses on both strength and balance, Thomas says. In fact, multiple studies show that training which focuses on both strength and balance can most effective lead to a reduction in falls among older adults. Taking physical therapist-led group exercise classes has specifically been shown to reduce the risk of falls while increasing balance and improving quality of life.

Thomas says that while this is great news, it’s important to keep in mind that all effective fall-prevention efforts should include the following components:

Fall Screening: If fall prevention is the goal, an assessment of an individual’s personal risk of falling is an ideal place to start. A thorough fall screening with take look into a person’s strength, balance and coordination, as well as other factors such as vision, medication, medical history, footwear, and even home safety.

Balance Training: A key to preventing falls is to maintain and improve balance. Doing so means continually challenging your body’s balance through personalized (and safe) exercises — single-leg stands, for instance.

Strength Exercises: Maintaining good lower-body strength has been specifically cited as another key factor in fall prevention. A physical therapist can assess a person’s individual strengths and weaknesses and create a program that specifically addresses muscle groups that can improve balance and gait.

Environment Assessment: A fall prevention strategy must always include specific suggestions on how to improve one’s environment for the sake of safety. Decluttering walk spaces, securing loose rugs, creating non-slip surfaces in the shower or tub, and even improving footwear can all go far in preventing falls.

According to Thomas, physical therapists are specifically trained to assess a person’s fall risk and develop an individualized plan to help with fall prevention. So contact your local physical therapist, Thomas added, and take steps to maintain your independence and keep long-term health care costs in check.