Adler: We Need a Plan to Protect Older Americans

Posted June 13, 2012 at 4:45pm

Unintentional deaths and injuries to Americans 65 and older are in need of far more attention than they currently receive.

Despite making up only 13 percent of our population, older Americans suffer 60 percent of the deaths associated with consumer products. Census statistics predict that by 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 or older, so the time is now for the creation of a national action plan for the prevention of deaths and injuries to older Americans.

A well-designed plan will both (1) raise the alarm that our honored citizens are quickly becoming among our most vulnerable and (2) focus on specific injury hazards and risks of death to older Americans. Addressing this trend will require an all-hands-on-deck approach.

In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a national action plan that took a broad and comprehensive approach to reducing children’s injuries. We at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission are pleased to be a part of this effort because we have long recognized that children are our most vulnerable and involuntary risk takers. Without question, they need extra protection from unreasonable risks of injury and death.

Unfortunately, no one has developed a comparable plan for a group that often faces similar vulnerabilities: older Americans. Such a plan is needed to prevent the type of falls that take place every day in and around our seniors’ homes that lead not to bumps and bruises but to hospitalizations and fatalities. Not all falls are avoidable, of course, but with improvements in technology, increased physical conditioning and more education, many lives can be saved and injuries mitigated or prevented.

While some, but not enough, public and private groups already work on the issue of falls, the hazard remains.

The CDC estimates that one out of every three people in the U.S. age 65 or older will suffer a serious fall this year, resulting in more than 19,000 deaths and a cost to society of more than $28 billion. A national action plan that has all stakeholders pulling in the same direction at the same time will bring these solutions to the market faster and into our homes more effectively than the current haphazard approach.

Yet, a plan is needed for more than just falls. It’s needed to prevent the next fire or carbon monoxide inhalation death to a senior that did not manage to get out of a burning building fast enough. Sadly, this is not a rare event. In 2007, there were more unintentional fire and burn deaths to older Americans than any other demographic category, and the odds of surviving fires get worse as we get older. The relative risk of death from fire for adults 84 and older is more than four times greater than for the general population. Our nation’s firefighters and emergency responders are brave, dedicated and proactive, but they cannot prevent these fire deaths alone.

In short, the hazards to our seniors occupy many fronts — from unstable ladders to flammable fabrics to hard-to-use power tools. Products that seem benign to youth may take on a more ominous character when older Americans use them.

In 2004, staff at my agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, estimated that the combined injury and death costs to older Americans totaled more than $100 billion per year. In the coming months, we will prepare our first updated annual report in almost a decade on deaths and injuries to older Americans. I believe our new data will assist in a larger national effort where all stakeholders work to determine which hazards to our seniors are easily addressable and which hazards require new types of technology and consumer education.

The CDC’s national plan on children’s injuries states it will require “bold actions, effective leadership, and strong partnerships” to accomplish its purpose of reducing injuries and saving money. We need the same national commitment for older Americans. It is not often that children blaze a trail for their grandparents, but this seems to be one of those moments.

Robert Adler is a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.