March Is Brain Injury Awareness Month
Seniors are at greater risk for dangerous head injuries.
During the past few years, there's been a lot of press about the concussion risk football players and boxers face, and how this often leads to dementia as they grow older. But few people are aware that seniors are the demographic group at greatest risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI). As we age, our brains grow smaller, which leaves more room within the skull for the brain to move around during a fall or other accident.
Falls are the leading cause of TBI, accounting for more than 35 percent of occurrences overall—and more than 60 percent of TBI incidents in seniors. TBI results in, or is a contributing factor to, 138 deaths every day in the United States. Many who survive these injuries face lifelong disability. And no matter our age, TBI raises the risk of developing dementia.
Seniors may downplay the results of a recent fall. But family caregivers should know that it's important to seek immediate medical attention if an elderly loved one experiences:
- Headache that won't go away.
- Difficulty remembering things.
- Inability to make decisions or concentrate on everyday tasks.
- Lack of energy; feeling tired all the time.
- Lightheadedness or dizziness.
- Loss of sense of taste or smell.
- Ringing in the ears.
- Sudden mood changes.
A medical exam is the best way to determine if any damage has occurred. Because diagnosing TBI can be tricky, try to choose a physician who has knowledge of, and experience in, brain injury.
Of course, as is the case with most medical conditions, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Because falls are the leading cause of TBI, the best way to help prevent your loved one from head injury is to help them avoid falling. Here are some ways you can do that:
Get them moving! While it may seem counterintuitive, physical activity can go a long way in preventing falls. Physical activity—even low-impact exercise like walking, water aerobics, yoga and tai chi—can improve balance, strength, coordination and flexibility. Before your loved one begins any new fitness activities, talk to their healthcare provider about an appropriate exercise program. Ask for a recommendation on the best shoes for your loved one's new fitness activities. (And it goes without saying that if your loved one bicycles for fitness, a helmet is a must!)
Make the home safer. Most falls take place right in a person's own home. Remove hazards, and make improvements such as:
- Installing handrails in the bathroom, which is a major spot for falls.
- Adding nonskid flooring throughout the house.
- Removing clutter from stairs and walkways.
- Improving lighting and adding nightlights.
Review medications. Certain drugs—or combination of drugs—can cause drowsiness or lightheadedness, increasing the likelihood of a fall. Encourage your loved one to have all medications reviewed by a physician or pharmacist. It might be possible to switch to a different drug that doesn't have the side effects. (Never stop taking a drug without consulting with the healthcare provider first.)
Make an eye doctor appointment. Poor vision increases the chance of falling. Be sure your loved one has regular, comprehensive, dilated eye exams from an ophthalmologist to discover if there are any problems that might be limiting vision. Keep their eyeglasses prescription up to date.
Get help at home. If your loved one is living with a condition such as arthritis, dementia, visual impairment or the effects of a stroke, it might make sense to bring in some help to do chores that might increase the risk of falling—such as cleaning, dog walking or grocery shopping. Professional in-home caregivers also can help with bathing, meal preparation and medication reminders. They also can provide an extra measure of confidence as seniors increase their all-important exercise routine.
Download a free booklet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Preventing Traumatic Brain Injury in Older Adults.
Learn more about fall prevention and give yourself a fall prevention checkup in the September 2014 issue of Caring Right at Home.