When he tried to sit on a chair at his home in Verona, Richard Herfel fell and broke his spine.

After the fall in February, Herfel, 84, had surgery and spent six weeks in a nursing home. Now, he struggles to walk using a walker.

“It’s been an uphill battle,” he said.

Joann Senn, 69, broke her wrists and suffered a traumatic brain injury last year when she tripped over her black Lab and fell down the stairs.

The brain injury has “affected my balance, it’s affected my thinking, it’s just affected everything,” said Senn, also from Verona.

Falls don’t get as much attention as top killers such as cancer and heart disease, but they take a heavy toll, especially in Wisconsin.

About 1,200 residents die from falls each year, nearly as many deaths as from breast and prostate cancer combined. Dane County sees more than 100 deadly falls a year, 86 percent of them among people 65 and older.

Wisconsin’s death rate from falls is second-highest among states, after Vermont, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most falls don’t kill, but they frequently lead to injuries, hospital stays, nursing home placements, depression and social isolation, according to the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging.

“The loss of independence can lead to the purpose in life going down,” said Shannon Myers, a community research specialist with the institute. “Now they have to rely on others to do regular tasks that they normally would have done. It really takes away their daily function, and they become more sedentary.”

It’s not clear why Wisconsin’s death rate from falls is so high, Myers said. The state might have more specific reporting of deaths from falls, but winter weather and alcohol use may also play a role, she said.

Risk factors for falls include poor vision, lower body weakness, trouble with balance, use of psychoactive medications and home hazards such as cords and rugs, the CDC says.

Herfel and Senn were among 14 older adults who gathered at the Verona Senior Center this week for a program aimed at preventing falls.

For strength, balance

Stepping On, a seven-week class available in the Madison area through Safe Communities of Madison-Dane County, helps people at risk for falls reduce their risk through exercise and education.

At this week’s session, physical therapist Jenna Pitt led participants in exercises to improve their strength and balance.

Session leader Ron Dorr talked about ways to prevent falls at home.

Don’t hurry to answer the phone; it’s better to let the answering machine pick up, he said. Make sure walkways are clear of cords from TVs, lamps and space heaters.

Use LED lights to increase lighting in dim areas, and ask someone else to change the light bulb if you can’t safely reach the fixture, he suggested.

Get rid of throw rugs, or at least tack or tape them down.

“They are probably one of the most dangerous things you can have in your house,” Dorr said. “Once they’ve been there for a while, those edges start to curl up on you.”

He encouraged everyone to continue going out and being social, as long as they do so safely.

“Please don’t get trapped in the house,” he said. “That’s the last thing we want to see.”

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.