Aging Healthy: Preventing Injuries

Lynn McNicoll, MD
Healthy Aging

With age comes wisdom. Unfortunately, trips, falls and injuries may come with it too.  

There are several reasons for that:

  • Normal aging. There are normal processes that occur as we age, which can increase our risk of falls. We have less ability to adapt to changes in posture so that when we stand up quickly, blood pressure can drop quickly, and we might fall. We also have less muscle mass and slower reflexes as we get older. Aging also affects our ability to adjust to fluid changes that come with resuscitation or withstand surgery for the traumatic injuries such as bone fractures. Finally, seniors have less physiological reserve to be able to manage a traumatic event such as injury from a fall or motor vehicle accident.
  • Medical conditions. With aging comes an increased risk for heart disease, lung disease, and arthritis, and each is associated with an increased risk of falls in the elderly. In addition, seniors who have underlying cognitive deficits such as dementia are more likely to suffer from delirium with trauma. This can add days to a hospital stay and increase the risk of additional complications, or death.
  • Medications. As medical conditions accumulate, often so do the medications needed to manage them. Many medications are also associated with an increased risk of falls. In addition, older individuals are more likely to be on blood thinning medications which increase the risk of complications with trauma.

The most common causes of injuries

In general, the two most common causes of injuries in the older population are falls and motor vehicle accidents.

  • By far the most common trauma in the elderly is from falls.  The rate of falls increases as you get older, along with a higher risk of severe injury. Hip fractures, spine fractures, rib fractures and head injury account for the biggest injuries for the elderly related to falls. Although most people recover from their injuries quickly and fully, the rate of complications and death increase with age.
  • Trauma related to motor vehicles accidents is the second most common cause of injuries in the elderly. These injuries may occur as a driver, passenger, or pedestrian.

Prevention is key

While falls and motor vehicle accidents can be devastating, there are strategies that can help prevent these injuries.

  • Medication management. While medications can be helpful for medical conditions, their use should be reduced as much as possible.
  • Stay active. Staying physically and mentally active is extremely important with age. Tai Chi exercises in particular have been found to be most effective at reducing falls.
  • Home safety evaluations. These visits by experts can help to identify and correct potential hazards that contribute to falls. Some of the most common hazards are rugs or lack of grab bars in bathrooms.
  • Motor vehicle safety. Wearing a seatbelt is a must as they reduce the severity of injuries. Be sure to avoid driving under the influence of alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription medications that can make you drowsy, such as opioids. Primary care physicians can help by assessing driving safety among older drivers who develop cognitive deficits. There are several driving training programs for seniors available through AAA and AARP.
  • Bone health. Aging can impact our bones as well. Healthy bones are very important for reducing the risk of fractures with trauma. For women over 50 and high-risk men (for example, men on corticosteroids), a bone density test can assess your bone health. In addition, measuring the vitamin D level in your blood is important to see if you need supplementation.

Remember, staying active and eating well can help you stay healthier as you get older, as well as recuperate and recover better when you are injured or become ill. 

For more tips on staying healthy as you get older, visit the Aging section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.