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Jane Sanders
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Atlanta, GA,

Spinal Cord Injuries Caused by Falls are Increasing Among Aging Baby Boomers

The incidence of paralyzing spinal cord injuries caused by falls in older adults is increasing largely because aging Baby Boomers are living longer and want to maintain more active lives than previous generations, according to the Southeastern Regional Spinal Cord Injury Model System at Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

“They are pushing themselves to continue to do some of the activities they enjoyed when they were younger,” said Lesley Hudson, co-director of the Southeastern Regional Spinal Cord Injury Model System. “In general, that’s a good thing. But that puts this population at a higher risk for falls.”

Meanwhile, research conducted at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and published in the Feb. 1 issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma shows falls are the leading cause of spinal cord injury (SCI) among people treated at emergency rooms, and the incidence is rising fastest among older people (article available here). Not all of these injuries are paralyzing, or require rehabilitation at a specialty hospital. Still, the finding is significant, Hudson said.

Falls are a close second to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of SCI among people ages 46 to 60 undergoing rehabilitation at Model System facilities nationwide, but the gap between the two is narrowing in this age group, Hudson said. Falls are by far the leading cause of SCI in Model System patients ages 61 and up.

Because of this trend, the Model System network, which includes Shepherd Center, has created a research group focused on older people with SCI. “We are gathering data on how these individuals are injured, what secondary conditions they have and how those conditions affect patients’ rehabilitation and life expectancy,” Hudson said. She notes that many Model System facilities have created treatment teams focused on meeting the specific needs of older patients.

The increase in SCI caused by falls also emphasizes the need for injury prevention, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers and Hudson. “Some older adults who are fit, and even those who have had knee or hip replacements, think 65 is the new 35,” she said. “But it’s still important to be very careful and not take any additional risk in what they’re doing.”

Shepherd Center injury prevention and education director Bridget Metzger echoed that advice. She noted that older adults are also at risk for traumatic brain injury caused by falls.

“The ways to prevent brain and spinal cord injuries from falls are as varied as the places from which a person can fall,” Metzger said. “But there are some practical things you can do to protect yourself from these devastating injuries.”

  • Use extreme caution when climbing anything. You don’t have to fall far to get hurt.
  • Remove obstacles that may cause you or someone else to fall.
  • Follow safety rules for all recreation activities that may place you at heights above ground level.
  • Wear a helmet when riding bicycles and horses.
About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Ga., is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury or brain injury. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation and is a 152-bed facility. Last year Shepherd Center had 965 admissions to its inpatient programs and 571 to its day patient programs. In addition, Shepherd Center sees more than 6,600 people annually on an outpatient basis. For more information, visit Shepherd Center online at