8 Ways to Protect Seniors From Head Injuries

Grandparents and grandkids on bikes

"Kids, be sure to wear your helmets!" The grownups in this family ought to be taking their own advice, because the older we get, the more likely we are to suffer a brain injury.

It seems like every week there is new media coverage of the effect of head injuries on athletes. Sports leagues are putting improved concussion protocols in place. Many parents are rethinking whether they will give their kids permission to take part in contact sports, such as football, hockey and boxing.

Skeptics who scoff that parents are being overprotective, or who make comments about today's athletes being "wimps," should look at some studies from 2018. For example, University of Washington researchers reviewing data on 2.8 million people found that those who sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a blow or jolt to the head were 24 percent more likely to develop dementia later on. The more serious the injury, the higher the risk, but even a concussion, the mildest form of brain injury, raised the risk. And the American Academy of Neurology noted that even a mild TBI earlier in life can double a person's risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Sustaining a head injury when we're older can be just as serious, leading to immediate problems with our thinking, memory, vision, hearing, balance, communication and behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that TBIs are more common among older adults, and people age 75 and older are most likely to be hospitalized with a brain injury. And seniors who experience a concussion recover more slowly, according to the Radiological Society of America.

As we grow older, how can we lower our risk of a brain injury? Here are steps to take:

Make fall prevention a priority. Most head injuries in older adults are caused by a fall. Check out "The Rate of Senior Falls Is Not Falling" in the September 2017 issue of the Caring Right at Home e-newsletter to find suggestions for reducing the risk of falls by removing home hazards, getting a fall assessment from the doctor, and having medications reviewed.

Learn how to protect your head if you fall. Many senior centers, senior living communities and Area Agencies on Aging offer fall prevention training programs that can help you improve your balance and develop awareness of your environment as you move. Almost everyone will fall at some time or another, so these classes often teach skills that can protect your head during a fall.

Always wear your seatbelt. If you're the driver and you're not sure whether you're safe behind the wheel, talk to your doctor. A senior driving class could improve your skills. It goes without saying that drinking and driving don't mix. Some prescription medications also raise the risk of a crash. And don't get into the passenger seat if you're not sure the car or driver are safe.

Be a watchful pedestrian. Cross at designated crosswalks, look both ways, and don't enter a crossing if you're not sure you have enough time to make it safely to the other side. Don't take chances or "stand your ground" with a car in a crosswalk — pedestrians never get the best of it in a collision. And leave your smartphone in your pocket or purse to avoid becoming one of the increasing number of Americans who suffer a "distracted walking" injury.

Whether at work or at play, wear the appropriate headgear. More seniors today continue to work, including those in trades where head protection is required. If you bike or ride a motorcycle, get a good helmet. And if golf is your sport, pay attention when you're on the course. It's rare to be hit by a golf ball, but it does happen.

Keep your glasses prescription up to date and use your hearing aids. Most of us realize that vision loss raises the risk of falls. Hearing loss, too, reduces environmental sensory cues that help us navigate safely. We're not only more likely to fall if we can't hear or see well, but also to bump our head, such as when we stand up under an open kitchen cabinet ... or even when we miss that other golfer shouting "fore."

Protect loved ones who have dementia. While head injuries raise the risk of dementia, the reverse also is true. People with Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder should be properly supervised to keep them from falling, driving when they shouldn't, venturing into a busy street, or being in a situation where they could be in danger of violent crime.

Prevent and report elder abuse. This is one cause of head injuries that we'd rather not think about. But it's something we should talk about. An elder may receive a serious head injury during a crime — even a purse snatching. Statistics show it's even more common that the perpetrator is someone a senior victim knows. If you are being abused, or you suspect someone else is, report it. You can find the reporting number for your state on the National Center on Elder Abuse website (www,ncea.acl.gov).

If you do suffer a TBI …

We can't prevent every head injury. Sometimes the unexpected, or a freak accident, or a moment of carelessness can cause a slight or serious brain injury. If you or someone else experiences an impact to the head, either from a fall or being hit by an object, be alert for signs of a TBI. These include: unconsciousness, persistent headache, nausea, foggy memory or confusion, balance problems, blurred vision, light sensitivity or ringing in the ears. If a TBI is suspected, seek medical attention right away.

The University of Washington researchers reassure us that not everyone who sustains a TBI will develop dementia. But they say it's extra-important to make lifestyle choices that are good for the brain, such as limiting alcohol and tobacco, getting plenty of exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping diabetes and hypertension and depression under control, and taking part in mentally stimulating activities.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.