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According to a recent report from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, sports injuries rose by 54% in Americans age 65 years and older between 1990 and 1996.

The rise in elder sports injuries outstrips the 8% increase in the number of North Americans in this age group over the same period, notes the agency. "The increase in injuries is most likely attributable to increasingly active lifestyles and to increased participation in sports activities by older Americans," according to the report.

The Commission also notes that Americans are remaining physically active into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s. And more elderly people are participating in "more active" sports such as bicycling, weightlifting, and skiing.

The report is based on data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which samples 101 hospitals nationwide drawn from 5,000 hospitals with 24-hour emergency departments.

The study showed that between 1990 and 1996, sports-related injuries increased much more among older active people than among younger age groups. In contrast to the 54% increase noted in those over age 65, sports-related injuries increased by 18% in the 25 to 64 age group.

In actual numbers, there were 34,000 sports injuries in the 65 and older age group in 1990, rising to 53,000 in 1996. "The increased incidence of injury occurred not only among the youngest of the 65 and older population, but also among those 75 years and older," according to the report. "Sports-related injuries to persons 75 and older increased by 29%."

But the Commission report also notes that the average cost for treating sport-related injury in the emergency room fell between 1990 and 1996. "While more injuries are occurring, they appear, on the average, to be less costly and severe," the report authors write.

While injuries from "less active" sports such as fishing, golf, bowling, and shuffleboard increased only slightly or not at all between 1990-1996, injuries sustained while participating in "more active" sports increased significantly in those 65 and older. Bicycling injuries were most common in this age group, and bike-related injuries increased by 75% in this age group. Most (60%) of these injuries resulted from falls, and 21% were head injuries. More injuries were also noted among older people using weights or other exercise equipment, and in older skiers.

"It is interesting to note that there were a small number of injuries (in those age 65 and older) seen for the first time in 1996 involving 'extreme' or more physically challenging sports such as snowboarding and in-line skating," note the study authors.

The report also notes that in both 1990 and 1996, about 60% of sports injuries in the geriatric age group occurred in men.

The hospitalization rate for sports injuries in the 65 and older age group is 10%, less than the 18% rate for injuries with all consumer products in this age group. "The lower hospitalization rate for sport-related injuries suggests that the population participating in sport activities is healthier overall than those who are not participating in sports," comments the Commission.

The study authors recommend that individuals participating in sports "use safety gear and take appropriate safety precautions, especially in active sports such as in-line skating and use of exercise equipment and weights."

They also note that "virtually none" of the elderly people with a head injury following a cycling accident were wearing a helmet at the time of the incident. "Bicycle helmets reduce the risk of serious head injury," advise the Commission.

"By getting regular exercise - and doing it safely - older Americans can enjoy a healthier life," they conclude.

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