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CDC: Elderly suffer brain injuries at higher rate than others

With the increasing media attention on concussions and mild brain injuries, and the increased risk they create for more serious brain trauma, health officials and others have been paying more attention to brain injuries. Given the increased awareness, it is not surprising reports of brain injuries are up, especially among Americans 75 and older. Apparently falls may be responsible for the increase in that age group.

Between 2007 and 2013, the rate of brain injuries resulting in ER visits, hospitalizations or deaths rose by 39 percent among all age groups in the U.S. That was a record-setting increase. For Americans 75 and older, the rate jumped by 76 percent.

At first, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention thought the39-percent increase among all Americans was partly the result of growing awareness. Physicians, parents and young adults are increasingly aware that sports-related concussions and mild brain trauma are more serious than once thought. That new awareness might have resulted in diagnoses that would have been missed in the past.

After really digging into the numbers, a co-author of a 2017 CDC study concluded falls among older adults were the main driver of the increase overall.

Falls might be on the rise as more of the frail elderly choose home-based health care over nursing homes. It may be that falls in home settings tend to be more serious because the environment is less controlled. Falls in home settings could get reported more often because they result in outside medical care. Or, less serious falls occurring in home care settings might actually be reported less often, if only because people fear they will lose their independence if they admit they've fallen.

Researchers note it's not clear home settings create a greater risk of falls than nursing homes do. Falls in nursing homes may be unacceptable, but they are relatively common.

Unfortunately, one fall can lead to others, especially if the first fall involved a minor head injury. A study last year found that, among seniors who suffered minor head injuries in falls, over a third ended up back in an emergency room within 90 days.

What initially seems like a minor fall involving a mild concussion could easily increase the chance of a subsequent fall -- and that one could be much more serious.

The CDC has already reported falls as the No. 1 cause of injuries and accidental death among older people. Approximately 27,000 people die from falls each year in the U.S.

Health officials need to determine whether home-based healthcare or nursing home care is in a better position to address this serious problem.

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