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More Mishaps Among Aging Boomers

By Jim Schnabel

They say Easy Rider inspired a generation. But as the members of that generation motor into late middle age, their rides are becoming decidedly less easy.

From 2000 to 2006, motorcycling deaths rose 145 percent among Americans 65 and older, amid a general rise in fatal and nonfatal injuries. The findings are contained in a new study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy (CIRP).

“Since the paper went to press I’ve been able to check the 2007 data, and indeed the numbers of motorcycling deaths are still rising,” says epidemiologist Susan P. Baker, MPH ’68, CIRP’s founding director and co-author of the study in the February issue of Injury Prevention. “I think that people who were doing a lot of motorcycling back in the 1960s and ’70s, and are now in their 60s and 70s, are still on their bikes or back on their bikes, and suffering for it.”

Baker conducted the study with lead author Guoqing Hu, PhD, a former postdoctoral fellow at the CIRP who is now an associate professor at the School of Public Health, Central South University, Changsha, China. The researchers analyzed the most recent available death certificate and emergency room statistics for older Americans from a large CDC database.

Deaths among those 65 and older from all unintentional injuries increased by 6 percent from 2000 to 2006, while nonfatal injuries increased 7 percent. The figures are comparable to those for all other age groups, but fatalities from motorcycling, machinery, poisonings and falls showed unusually sharp and significant increases among the elderly.

These trends appear to reflect, in part, a more prolonged active life among the current generation of older Americans. “A 75-year-old person today is doing things his father probably would not have done at the same age,” says Baker, a professor of Health Policy and Management.

The elderly also are living with more chronic medical conditions and are taking more prescription drugs, which may enhance their proneness to certain fatal injuries, says Grant Baldwin, PhD, MPH, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention.

Deaths from falls rose 42 percent from 2000 to 2006, a figure that represents thousands of extra deaths. But intriguingly, Hu and Baker found that nonfatal falls did not increase significantly over the period—hinting that increasing fall mortality may also be explained, at least in part, as a statistical artifact. “We think that fatalities after falls were once more likely to be attributed to later complications such as heart failure or infections, and doctors are now increasingly coding them as falls,” Baker says.