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A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the first comprehensive national look at the role brain injuries play in fatal elderly falls. The study examined 16,000 elderly deaths in 2005 that listed unintentional falls as an underlying cause of death.

CDC researchers found that slightly more than 50% of the deaths were attributed to brain injuries. The other deaths were due to a variety of causes including heart failure, strokes, infections and existing chronic conditions worsened by a broken hip or other injuries sustained in a fall.

CDC research also shows that the U.S. death rate from falling has risen dramatically _ about 55 percent _ for the elderly since the 1990s. The new study highlights the role that brain injuries play in such deaths. The severity of brain damage is not always readily apparent. One can suffer significant brain damage without losing consciousness. This is true even among the younger population. Brain bleeds can cause swelling and pressure over time and may not cause immediate symptoms. Senior citizens are more susceptible to traumatic brain damage from a blow to the head for a variety of reasons, including having more brittle veins and arteries, and being on blood thinners.

Not surprisingly, the study also found that hospitalization rates for fall-related brain injuries increased with age. Brain injuries accounted for about 8 percent of hospital stays for non-fatal falls.

There are several steps older Americans can take to try to prevent falls. Exercise can increase leg strength and balance. Glasses or other vision correction measures can help people avoid obstacles. And being careful with the use of drugs that can affect thinking and coordination _ such as tranquilizers and sleeping pills _ can also make a difference.

The research is being published in the June issue of a scientific publication, the Journal of Safety Research.

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