15 Years Later, Busting the Danger Myth Yet Again


Injuries jumped dramatically among adults ages 65 and older between 1991 and 2002, states a new report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). This federal agency works to protect Americans from “unreasonable risks of serious injury or death” related to more than 15,000 types of consumer products — including sports products. The study contains sobering numbers for anyone committed to the well-being of older adults.

In 2002, more than 1.45 million adults ages 65 and older went to hospital emergency rooms with injuries related to consumer products in or around the home. Falls proved the leading cause of injury. Emergency room visits increased 23 percent for people ages 65 to 74 years between 1991 and 2002, according to the CPSC's Special Report: Emergency Room Injuries Adults 65 and Older. However, of particular concern, these visits increased 73 percent among adults ages 75 and older in the decade studied. The report points out that this rate of injury is three times the growth recorded for the 75-plus age group in the same period. And falls were associated with 77 percent of emergency room visits for these individuals.

“These are preventable injuries,” says CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton. “Older Americans are living longer and are more active than ever. We want them to enjoy themselves free from debilitating injury.”

In fact, sports-related death and injuries are cited for what the CPSC calls “more active older consumers.” According to the CPSC press release that announced the report's release, the agency found “reports of 100 drowning deaths in one year among those 65 and older, a disproportionate share.”

Expect this statement to cause some concern among your older adult clients. Why? Because some media outlets seized on this fact and started fear-mongering. These outlets did not examine the facts or provide context about physical activity for this age group. For instance, they did not compare the number of unfortunate drowning deaths with the number of people who participate regularly in aquatic exercise. Nor did they compare this figure with the number of older adults who enjoy the many health benefits of a physically active lifestyle, such as a lower heart disease risk, better lung function, lower blood pressure and stronger bones.

In what may be the greatest irony, this sensational media coverage ignored exercise's ability to improve the balance, gait and strength problems that contribute greatly to the fall risk in the 65-plus age group. Instead, the “fear factor” won out, conjuring up images of older adults dying during exercise. Yet typical fall scenarios for older adults involve falling down stairs, moving from standing to sitting positions, tripping over loose carpets and other obstacles on the floor, and falling off ladders and step stools.

Why is it that media outlets continue to promote the view that exercise is dangerous for older adults? For those of us in the active aging field, this myth was “busted” 15 years ago. The groundbreaking Tufts University study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1990, showed that older adults could do high-intensity strength training safely.

In The Journal on Active Aging (January/February 2002), Dr. David Buchner, branch chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, and Dr. Steven Blair, now president, chief executive officer and director of research at The Cooper Institute, discussed physical activity for older adults.

“The 1990s were an incredible decade,” said Dr. Buchner. “We went from knowing hardly anything about the effects of physical activity on older adults to saying that physical activity is incredibly beneficial for this age group.”

The Tufts University research showed that older adults “double and triple their muscle strength and throw away their walkers” when they start weight training.

Let's not lose sight of the real issue here: falls are dangerous. They are the leading cause of injury-related death for both men and women ages 75 and older, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), which is working with members of Congress to develop the Elderly Falls Prevention Act. More than 30,000 Americans ages 65 and older are seriously injured in a fall every week, and 250 die as a result. Of those who survive, 20 to 30 percent of individuals have debilitating injuries as long as they live.

Deaths and injuries related to consumer products among adults ages 65 and older cost the United States more than $100 billion every year, the CPSC estimates. Physical activity is a low-cost way to prevent falls and their related financial and human costs. As fitness professionals, we must keep telling people that fact as often as needed to finally bust the myth that exercise is dangerous.

Colin Milner is chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. An award-winning writer, Milner has authored more than 100 articles on aging-related issues. He can be reached at [email protected].

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