While cancer and heart disease are known for being lethal, deaths from these health issues have actually declined over time. Conversely, death rates from falls have increased, particularly among the elderly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the number one cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries in Americans aged 65 and older.

Approximately 27,000 seniors succumb annually due to falls, but how can such a seemingly innocuous accident be life-threatening?

How Falls Increase the Risk of Death

Depending on how a senior lands when they fall, they could experience anything from a broken hip to a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Fractured bones and soft tissue injuries are the most common injuries. Unfortunately for seniors, even minor trauma can require hospitalization, and many never regain the level of functionality and confidence they enjoyed before the incident.

Advanced age, frailty and pre-existing medical conditions mean that older individuals are less likely to recover from their injuries. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Mississippi found that seniors older than 70 experienced a three-fold increase in their risk of death after a fall when compared with those 69 and younger. According to the CDC, trauma to the brain was the cause of death in 41% of fall fatalities among seniors in 2010. However, even with a less serious injury, like a broken bone, the course of treatment and prognosis are still complicated. Hip fractures often require surgical procedures involving sedation and further trauma—two things that can jeopardize an older person's life.

Even if a senior survives the fall and subsequent medical care, a longer recovery time translates to a longer hospital stay. This leaves the elderly more vulnerable to hospital-acquired infections, such as pneumonia, sepsis, C. diff, and catheter-associated urinary tract infections (UTIs). Matters can be complicated further if an infection is resistant to commonly used antibiotic drugs.

Non-Fatal Falls Have Long-Term Effects

Complications from a fall can ultimately render a senior incapable of caring for themselves. Only 22% of seniors in the University of Mississippi study could handle living on their own after being released from the hospital following a fall. After such a traumatic and painful incident, many older individuals reduce their activity levels due to a fear of falling again. This reaction is understandable, but can lead to increased frailty and risk of a repeat fall. Changes in mental state, such as depression, delirium, or even dementia can develop as well.

Prevention Is Key

The best preventive methods involve addressing and minimizing hazards before they can pose a threat to an aging loved one’s health. Not every accident can be avoided, but taking certain precautions can extend a senior’s independence and greatly reduce their risk of injury and death.

Read: Tips for Preventing Falls, Fractures and Broken Bones in Elders