Accidental injuries are a leading cause of disability and death, but they are almost always preventable.
By Beverly Merz
Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
When asked to name their greatest health risks, people rarely mention accidents. Yet accidental injuries are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 136,000 lives annually. And if you're under 45, you're more likely to die from an accidental injury than from any other cause.
Three types of accidents —poisonings, motor vehicle crashes, and falls — account for about two-thirds of these deaths, according to the Harvard Special Health Report Women's Health: Fifty and Forward. Poisoning is the leading cause of death due to injury in the United States, bridging all age groups. Car crashes are more likely to claim the lives younger people, while falls are a more common cause of death for seniors.
Lower your risk of accidents at home
The leading cause of home-injury fatalities, falls were responsible for the deaths of about 32,000 people in 2014. Falling is more than a way to get hurt; it may also be a sign that you're losing skills needed to maintain mobility, explains Dr. Jonathan Bean, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. "That's why falls are part of a larger concern, because they can set people down the path to disability," he says.
Spills aren't an inevitable consequence of aging. There are several things you can do for yourself and your home to reduce the risk of accidental injuries, including the following:
- Build your core strength. It may be natural to assume that a sturdy pair of legs will shore you up, but having a robust torso is even more important. Work on strengthening your abdomen, back, and hip girdle by doing exercises that work on several muscle groups at a time.
- Make sure you can see properly. Wearing reading glasses or new multifocal lenses when walking can increase your risk of falls by affecting your depth perception. Have a vision exam annually, and consider single-vision lenses if you need to have your distance vision corrected.
- Remove home hazards. Tack or tape down loose rugs, install handrails or grab bars if necessary, and ensure that you have proper lighting so you can see obstacles clearly.
Take precautions to prevent poisoning
Poisoning ranks high on the list of accidental injuries, accounting for almost 40,000 deaths in 2014. Drugs—both pharmaceutical and illicit—were responsible for most poisoning deaths.
It goes without saying that recreational drug use raises your risk of accidental poisoning. However, therapeutic drugs used improperly can also have toxic effects, especially if taken with alcohol.
Tell your doctor about all the medications you are taking, so you can make substitutions for those most likely to cause drug interactions or overdoses. It's especially important to minimize your use of opioid pain relievers like hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (Oxycontin), which are involved in an increasing proportion of drug-poisoning deaths. Always take your medications exactly as prescribed.
Reduce your risk of accidents on the road
In 2014, about 35,000 people were killed in traffic accidents, ending a years-long decline in U.S. highway fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that almost 50% of people who died in wrecks weren't wearing seat belts. Per NHTSA data, about 30% of fatalities were attributed to drunken driving or speeding, and distracted drivers—particularly those texting—were implicated in 10%.
It's clear that buckling up, staying sober, observing the speed limits, and turning off your cellphone can go a long way in lowering the likelihood you'll be involved in a car crash. Some additional measures can also help:
- Make sure you're fit to drive. You should have near-normal corrected vision, including peripheral vision. You should be able to hear a car horn or siren easily. You should be able to rotate your neck to look over your shoulder and have good sensation in your feet.
- Keep your vehicle roadworthy. See that wipers and defrosters are working, tires are properly inflated, and windows and mirrors are clean.
- Be a cautious pedestrian. Distracted walking can also lead to accidental injuries. Don't talk on your cell phone while you're crossing the street. Always use marked crosswalks and obey crossing signals.