The tragic and untimely passing of comedian and “Full House” star Bob Saget at the age of 65 is reported to have resulted from blunt head trauma. In a statement to “Entertainment Tonight,” his family said Saget “accidentally hit the back of his head on something, thought nothing of it and went to sleep.”
For adults 60 and older, head trauma can be especially dangerous. Unfortunately, research shows that elderly patients over 65 have about a 27% chance of falling in any given year. And what might be a simple bump on the head for a young person can be a severe injury in an older adult, especially those on anticoagulants or aspirin for medical issues such as deep vein thrombosis or atrial fibrillation.
Caregivers need to stay vigilant about monitoring any injury in seniors, especially because a bump on the head can be a hazardous occurrence that an older adult may brush off as no big deal. And when caregivers understand the signs of severe problems after a bang on the head, particularly the back of the head, it can save lives.
What are the signs of traumatic brain injury?
Some symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and concussion may appear immediately, while others can take hours to become evident—or even days. Older adults should be seen by a doctor immediately for any of these issues after a head injury.
Unfortunately, many of the signs of TBI are challenges some seniors already face every day, so it can be difficult to tell if symptoms are usual behavior or a result of the TBI. If you have any doubt, contact your loved one’s doctor.
- Dizziness or balance problems
- Noise or light sensitivity
- Sudden headache
- Nausea or vomiting
- Vision changes or problems
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Unable to pay attention or concentrate
- Foggy or unable to think clearly
- Short-term memory loss
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Sadness or depression
You should call 911 for emergency help if any of the following symptoms occur:
- Loss of consciousness, even briefly
- A headache that’s severe and doesn’t go away
- Weakness, numbness, convulsions or seizures
- Repeated vomiting
- Slurred speech or difficulty speaking
- One pupil that appears larger than the other
- Confusion about who they are or who other familiar people are
How is a traumatic brain injury diagnosed and treated?
Different types of TBIs can occur, including skull fracture, concussion and intracranial hematoma (which can be an epidural, subdural or contusion hematoma). These are all potentially deadly injuries for older adults, as their skulls are often more firmly attached to the dura, resulting in higher bleeding incidences.
After an examination, your senior’s physician may order further tests to determine the extent of the injury. TBIs are diagnosed through the use of the following procedures:
- Blood test
- Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan)
- Electroencephalogram (EEG)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Treatment of the head injury will depend on the diagnosis, but can involve:
- Antibiotic ointment and bandages for scrapes and cuts
- Immediate medical attention, including hospitalization
- Moderate sedation or assistance with breathing through a breathing machine, mechanical ventilator or respirator (for the most severe injuries)
How to prevent head injuries in older adults
There’s no foolproof way to keep an older adult safe from falling or banging their head on an open cabinet door or bookshelf. Still, you can do things to make them less likely to sustain injury.
When approved by a doctor, regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce your loved one’s chance of falling. Balance exercises like tai chi are low-impact and can be very good for an older adult.
Also, do what you can to keep your senior’s home as safe as possible:
- Remove small throw rugs.
- Keep most-used items in the kitchen and other locations within easy reach to avoid the need for a stepstool.
- Install grab bars in the bathroom.
- Place non-slip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors.
- Make sure lighting is bright enough throughout the home.
- Supportive, well-made shoes with thick soles are essential.
Have your loved one’s doctor review their medication to make sure they aren’t taking anything that will cause drowsiness or dizziness. Also, schedule your senior for an eye exam to ensure their glasses are the right prescription.
Head trauma is just one fall away for all of us, but a TBI can quickly become a medical emergency for seniors without the proper treatment and care.