June 23, 2008

Falls Are Leading Cause of Injury Deaths Among Elderly

Elderly falls can cause fatal brain damage, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Published in the June issue of the Journal of Safety Research, the report found that brain injuries incurred during falls accounted for almost 8,000 deaths and 56,000 hospitalizations in 2005 among elderly Americans.

The other deaths were linked to a variety of causes including heart failure, strokes, infections and existing chronic conditions which were worsened by injuries sustained during a fall.

"A lot of people don't think a fall is serious unless they broke a bone, they don't think it's serious unless they break a hip. They don't worry about their head," said Pat Flemming, a senior physical therapist and researcher at Vanderbilt University.

During some of these falls, older adults receive a blow to the head, causing what researchers refer to as traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs. These TBIs often result in long-term cognitive emotional, and/or functional impairment and can be misdiagnosed among older adults, according to the CDC.

"Most people think older adults may only break their hip when they fall, but our research shows that traumatic brain injuries can also be a serious consequence," said Dr. Ileana Arias, director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

"These injuries can cause long-term problems and affect how someone thinks or functions," she added.

Overall, researchers studied the cases of 16,000 deaths in 2005 that listed unintentional falls as an underlying cause of death. Their data came from the National Center for Health Statistics' National Vital Statistics System and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Nationwide Inpatient Sample.

Falls are not inevitable among the aging population, the agency said. However, they do occur more often among older adults because risk factors for falls are usually associated with health and aging conditions.

As people age, their veins and arteries can be more easily torn during a sudden blow or jolt to the head, said Marlena Wald, a CDC epidemiologist who co-authored the study.

That can cause a fatal brain bleed. Other factors can contribute, such as the use of blood-thinners, said Judy Stevens, another CDC researcher and co-author.

Many of these injuries aren't instantly apparent, but Wald noted a scenario seen in hospitals in which an elderly fall victim comes in alert and talking, but dies an hour or two later.

One in three elderly Americans fall each year, 30 percent of which cause injuries requiring medical treatment. In 2005, nearly 16,000 older adults died from falls, 1.8 million older adults were treated in emergency departments, and 433,000 of these patients were hospitalized.

Arias said that as the numerous baby boom generation hits retirement age, more people will fall and either die or require expensive hospital care.

"CDC has developed tips and suggestions for older adults, their caregivers, health care providers, and communities to help prevent falls," Arias said.


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Journal of Safety Research