According to data obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of deaths from traumatic brain injuries (TBI) caused by falls increased by 17% in the United States between 2008 and 2017. A closer look at the data reveals that TBI deaths among residents 55 and older caused by fall-related traumatic brain injuries increased, while the rates decreased among 54 and younger residents. In 2008, 1,620 deaths were reported among the population aged 54 and under, while 10,691 deaths were reported for people age 55 and older. In 2017, the number of TBI deaths among those 54 and under decreased to 1,486. During the same year, 2017, for residents 55 and older, fall-related traumatic brain injury deaths increased to a whopping 15,922.
Falls are the most common cause of non-fatal as well as fatal injuries among older Americans. On average, nearly 80 elderly adults die each day from a fall. Many of those deaths are the result of a traumatic brain injury. Unless awareness increases, the trend is likely to continue as the population ages.
Causes of Falls Among Older People
Our senior citizens are not usually taking part in obviously risky activities such as contact sports, racing, skydiving, etc. They are also less likely to suffer a work-related traumatic brain injury as a larger portion of them are retired. Numerous other, less apparent causes are putting older people at risk. As a person ages, multiple health and environmental factors become more prevalent.
Over Confidence in Physical Ability
While aging adults recognize the decline in their physical conditions, they frequently underestimate the increasing risks of falling. The effects of aging are gradual. There is not a specific day, age, or milestone when an aging adult ceases certain activities. For example, while many 75-year-old’s may be perfectly capable of riding a bicycle, it is not always apparent when an activity becomes too risky to continue. Older people often do not recognize the degree of their physical limitations and tend to be over-confident in their abilities.
On the other hand, people inevitably slow and limit activities over time, which further accelerates the age-related decline in physical fitness. The benefits of exercise to older people are substantial, but the exercise activities need to change to less risky activities as a person ages. See this article about exercises for seniors and which exercises to avoid. According to Harvard Medical School, exercise can improve stability and prevent falls.
Unwillingness to Refrain from Risky Activities and Situations
Picture an older adult on a ladder changing a lightbulb. It’s quite apparent to most of us that this is not a good idea. Even the person on the ladder knows it’s risky, but they are willing to take the risk. Perhaps, they can’t get help or don’t want to inconvenience anyone. They almost always feel like they can do it themselves without a problem. Keep in mind that nearly 12,000 elderly Americans suffer fatal traumatic brain injuries annually due to accidental falls. Obviously, not all falls are fatal, but the long term effects of traumatic brain injuries warrant a more conservative assessment of the risk.
In other situations, people don’t realize they are at risk. Such is the case with the person who steps onto an icy sidewalk. These safety issues are common for people of all ages, but slips and falls are an entirely different problem for older people than for younger people. Not only are older people more likely to fall, but the injuries are also more severe and more likely to lead to death. Healthy agile young people naturally protect their heads during a fall. It’s an instinctive reaction to extend arms, twist, fall on side, or other defensive movements to avoid a head injury. An older person may not be as agile and able to prevent traumatic brain injury when falling. Older people warrant more self-awareness and care to avoid risky situations and falls.
Degradation of Eyesight and Hearing
It’s a fact of life; eyesight and hearing decline with age. Corrective lenses and hearing-aids are helpful, if not essential, to aging adults. Failing to see a hazard or obstacle, even a small one, can result in a fall. Tripping hazards are everywhere, and most people can easily avoid them. While this is not a problem for most people, a simple misjudgment of a step or curb can cause a fall and injury, and a significant portion of them among older people are traumatic brain injuries.
Health Issues Leading to Falls and Traumatic Brain Injury
Conditions that often develop later in life, such as arthritis and geriatric syndromes, contribute to balance and strength issues, making older people more susceptible to falling and suffering traumatic brain injuries and other catastrophic injuries. Parkinson’s, Dementia, and Alzheimer’s present even more challenges and eventually require constant supervision to avoid accidental falls and resulting injuries.
Along with the health issues that develop later in life, the use of medications increase. Prescriptions often have unwanted side-effects that increase the risks of falls and injuries. Low blood pressure, fainting, dizziness, or decreased alertness are all problems that can be caused or exacerbated by medications and drug interactions.
Reducing the Number of Traumatic Brain Injury Deaths in the Elderly
Since accidental falls are the leading cause of traumatic brain injury deaths in older people, this is the highest priority area of prevention. Most falls among seniors are avoidable, and therefore, the number of traumatic brain injury deaths in the senior population can be reduced.
Awareness of the problem is the first step to reducing fall-related traumatic brain injury deaths among older people. The National Council on Aging’s National Falls Prevention Resource Center collects and publishes useful information on the subject. As we age, we need to be aware of the increasing risks and continuously assess and adjust our lifestyle and environment. We can’t always depend on aging people to self-assess and correct; families and caregivers must necessarily engage and contribute to fall-prevention. See NCOA’s Resources for Older Adults and Caregivers for more information.
Caregivers and loved ones can help. Remind the older people around you to take extra care when walking or moving about. Clean up and eliminate hazards around the home. Help them with any tasks that put them at risk of falling. See that handles and rails and ramps installed. Ensure proper lighting is available in their environments. There is much information available about keeping older adults safe from injury. Keep in mind that older people are often not aware of their limitations. You can make a positive difference in reducing senior citizens’ death rates caused by traumatic brain injury.