updated 8/20/2010 2:05:24 PM ET 2010-08-20T18:05:24

The fear of falling may be enough to make elderly people more likely to fall, regardless of their actual risk, a new study says.

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Australian and Belgian researchers followed 500 men and women, aged 70 to 90, for one year. They split the participants into various groups depending on their perceived and actual risks for falling. While most people had a fairly accurate sense of their chances of falling, about one-third either underestimated or overestimated their risk.

Among the people who were most afraid of falling, nearly 40 percent fell at least once within a year, even though they were rated to have a low actual risk of falling based on their physical health. The study was published online Friday in the medical journal, BMJ.

The authors said doctors should take patients' fears of falling into consideration when recommending what might help in preventing future injuries. "The inclusion of psychological and cognitive factors should improve the accuracy of prediction of falls," they wrote, suggesting therapies to ease anxiety about falling could help some people.

Falls in the elderly can be particularly serious since they are more prone to breaking bones or hips, which can leave them unable to walk.

Michelle Mitchell, a director at the British charity Age UK, said fear of falling can reduce people's quality of life as well as lead to isolation and loneliness. The charity called for Britain to invest more in services specifically to prevent falls in the elderly.

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