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Why Seniors May Be at an Elevated Risk of Brain Injury

With March being Brain Injury Awareness Month, it’s fitting that we take a look at the topic of seniors’ increased risk for brain injury in Alameda County and elsewhere. We see many seniors and those with brain injuries in hospice here at Pathways and feel this is an important topic for individuals and their families to be aware of.

According to the National Library of Medicine, traumatic brain injury (TBI) in those over 65 leads to more than 80,000 ER visits each year. About three-quarters of those visits result in hospitalization and adults over the age of 75 experience the highest rates of TBI-related hospitalization and death. Falls are the top cause of TBI for older adults, followed by motor vehicle crashes. Advanced age has been proven to negatively influence outcomes after a TBI.

Elderly at Risk

Traumatic brain injury is a top cause of morbidity and mortality in the elderly, and those with TBIs are more likely to die or need long-term care than those who are younger, says Elizabeth Sandel MD. Seniors fall more due to many factors, such as chronic health conditions; the use of many medications; confusion; and problems with balance and gait. It doesn’t take much for a senior to become the victim of a TBI; in fact, most elder falls are ground-level falls rather than falls from heights.

Elder abuse and neglect are also factors in TBI in seniors. Sadly, elder abuse is on the rise, with some estimates saying that one in 10 seniors is subjected to some form of elder abuse each month. However, with so many elder abuse cases going unreported, this is probably a vast underestimate. Those at the highest risk are those that still live with a spouse or their adult children, as they are the most common abusers. The second and third highest risks include older people with dementia and those of a lower socioeconomic status.

Because the elderly are at the highest risk for chronic dementia, this can often delay the diagnosis or treatment of TBI. That means seniors often don’t get the treatment they need until much later than they should.

TBI Prevention

The first step in prevention is to know the signs and symptoms of TBI. According to Brainline, symptoms of mild TBI can include:

  • Persistent low-grade headache
  • More trouble than usual in remembering things, concentrating, organizing tasks, or solving problems
  • Slow speaking, thinking, acting, or reading
  • Getting easily confused or lost
  • Chronic fatigue and lack of energy or motivation
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Loss of balance
  • Dizziness
  • Increased sensitivity to lights and sounds
  • Easily distracted
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Ringing in ears
  • Changes in sexual drive
  • Mood changes

Symptoms of moderate to severe TBI may include the above symptoms but also include:

  • Worsening headache that won’t go away
  • Repeated nausea or vomiting
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Inability to wake easily from sleep
  • Pupil dilation
  • Slurred speech
  • Weakness or numbness in legs or arms
  • Lack of coordination
  • Increased confusion, agitation, or restlessness

If you suspect your loved one has experienced a TBI, bring them to a doctor and let them know the symptoms you’re witnessing. They may prescribe drugs such as over-the-counter medicines, blood thinners, or aspirin. In addition to that, you can encourage daily exercise, make modifications to the home to make it safer to navigate, have a pharmacist review all their medication to identify any possible interactions and have an eye doctor check their vision.

Overall, the CDC says that about 176 Americans die every day from TBI-related injuries, whether that’s caused by a bump or blow to the head or a penetrating injury to the head that leads to disruption of normal function within the brain. In seniors, it doesn’t take too much to get a TBI. Sometimes even a soft fall or jolt to the head can cause a brain injury of some kind. It’s important to provide proper supervision for elders who are experiencing balance and gait problems, take a lot of medications, live on their own, have dementia, or have a medical condition such as Parkinson’s disease that can impair their perception and balance. 

A single fall increases a senior’s risk of subsequent falls, making older adults more likely to have repetitive TBIs, says FlintRehab. Women are more likely to fall and bump their heads than men. As a caregiver, be sure to encourage balance exercises and strength training, add adaptive equipment to the home such as handrails and grab bars, encourage the wearing of properly fitting shoes, remove hazardous conditions in the home such as areas rugs and coffee tables, and maintain high levels of hydration to minimize dizziness upon standing.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

Our caregiving team is experienced and trained in helping seniors with and without brain injuries live in comfort and safety. To find out more about our hospice services, contact us at 888-978-1306.