August 7, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

In the US, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths amongst the elderly.If you’re worried about an elderly parent falling, Ritalin could be the answer. A new study by Israeli researchers suggests that Ritalin, traditionally used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder in children with hyperactivity, could lower the risk of serious falls amongst senior citizens.

According to the study by Tel Aviv University, after only one dose of methylphenidate (the generic name for Ritalin), elderly test subjects walked with a steadier gait, and performed better on a standard screening test for fall risk.

Falls amongst the elderly are a serious problem. As we grow older, the risk of falling increases, and so does the severity of the injuries. According to figures released in 2006 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, in 2003, more than 13,700 senior citizens died from falls, making them the leading cause of injury deaths among people 65 and older.

The CDC report also shows that the same year almost 1.8 million seniors were treated in emergency departments for non-fatal injuries from falls, and more than 460,000 were hospitalized. For many this led to disability and admission to nursing homes.

TAU’s researchers, led by Prof. Jeffrey M. Hausdorff, a lecturer at the university’s Sackler School of Medicine, are the first to investigate Ritalin, a central nervous system stimulant which has been used to treat hyperactivity and chronic fatigue syndrome since the 1960s, as an aid to prevent the elderly from falling.

In the study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society , Prof. Hausdorff gave Ritalin to 26 healthy seniors who resided in independent living arrangements.

Better performance

The subjects were assessed for fall risk before taking a single dose of Ritalin or placebo administered in a double blind fashion. They were then asked to perform the “Timed Up and Go” test, during which they were asked to stand up from a chair, walk at a normal pace for about 10 feet and then turn around, walk back and sit down. The longer it takes to accomplish the task, the greater the fall risk.

The senior citizens who took Ritalin performed the test quicker and had less variability in their “stride time,” a common sign of instability, researchers found. Preliminary research on patients with Parkinson’s disease also shows that Ritalin may help decrease the risk of falling even in the face of this common neurodegenerative disease.

“Our study suggests that it may be possible to reduce the risk of falls in older adults by treating cognitive deficits associated with aging and disease,” Prof. Hausdorff says. “This is consistent with a growing body of literature which has demonstrated that walking is not a simple, automated task, as it was once believed. We’ve taken this idea a step further and shown that you can capitalize on this dependence on cognitive function and use it to reduce the risk of falls.”

While the notion of treating fall risk with a pill is “an intriguing concept,” says Prof. Hausdorff, who also lectures at Harvard Medical School, he believes it is still too early to recommend Ritalin on a wide scale basis. Nor is it suitable for everyone – those with certain types of heart disease would not be able to take the drug.

Additional studies are planned, and in the meantime Prof. Hausdorff recommends that the over 65s remain both physically and mentally active. “It’s important to strengthen your muscles, but seniors need to strengthen their minds as well,” he says.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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