Fall history may be linked with car accident risk in seniors

A new study says older drivers are at a higher risk for car accidents if they have a history of slip and fall injury.

Though there are numerous reasons to enjoy the golden years – retirement being chief among them – no one ever said getting older was easy. Due to wear and tear, the body can't quite do the things it used to have no problem handling when it didn't have as many "miles" on it. It's part of the reason why slip and fall accidents are so prevalent in the elderly.

It turns out, however, that frequent falls may serve as a warning sign for older drivers to be extra cautious when they're behind the wheel, according to a newly released study on the relationship between falls and car accident history.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falling is the most frequent source of injury among older adults. In fact, 1 in 3 Americans 65 years and older fall at least once in the typical year.

It's these injuries that scientists believe could contribute to older drivers being more at risk for an accident while on the road. Based on joint analysis performed by researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, older drivers are 40% more likely to be involved in a car accident if they have a injury history stemming from falling.

Christine Cigolle, M.D., the study's lead author and assistant professor in the departments of Family Medicine and Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan, said in some respects, the findings weren't too surprising. In others, however, they were very unexpected.

"We expected an increase because older adults are getting older and there are more 80- and 90-year-old adults than before," Cigolle explained, "but we were very surprised to find that the increase in falls was not due to the changing demography."

What explains the association?

Though falls among the elderly occur for a variety of reasons, similarly diverse are the potential explanations for why older drivers are more susceptible to be involved in car accidents. The most likely explanations, according to the researchers, include diminished functional capability. For example, if a senior has a leg injury after falling to the ground, the individual may experience a twinge of pain that causes that person to hit the gas or brake pedal errantly. It may also be due to diminished confidence, as a senior may fear that the injury sustained could lead to an accident. In these incidents, the fear can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Seniors have been known to be involved in accidents where physical or cognitive decline was to blame. In late April in Massachusetts, for instance, a man in his 70s mistakenly hit the gas pedal instead of the brake when trying to leave a restaurant parking lot. According to local newspaper The Enterprise, the vehicle wound up going through the dining facility where he had just been eating, causing serious damage to the building. Though one person was taken to the hospital, no one sustained serious injuries, including the motorist.

Car accident rate among seniors has decreased

Thanks in large measure to stricter licensing rules – where older men and women have to renew their licenses more routinely as they age – car accidents among seniors have actually fallen over the years. For seniors 75 years and older, the accident rate in the United States has dropped 22% between the early-to-late 1990s versus 2005 to 2008, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Accident fatalities have also diminished by 11%.

Still, many seniors are at risk for being injured because their bodies aren't as resistant to heavy impact, warned Jessica Cicchino, a senior research scientist at IIHS.

"Safer vehicles are leveling the playing field, but older adults' fragility is still a big threat when it comes to surviving crashes, especially for drivers 75 and older," explained Cicchino. "That physical vulnerability continues to be the leading contributor to older drivers' fatality rates."

If you are a senior or have parents who are, check out IIHS' website for details on licensing rules, which vary across the country. For example, in Virginia, the typical motorist renews his or her license once every eight years. For individuals 75 and older, though, it's once every five years.