Motorcycle riders across the country are growing older, and these aging road warriors are more likely to be injured or die as a result of a mishap or accident compared with their younger counterparts, according to a new study.
Though not exactly a picture of gray beards flying in the breeze, the findings reveal the average age of motorcyclists involved in crashes increased by approximately 5 years, from 34 to 39, between 1996 and 2005.
And the proportion of injured riders above the age of 40 jumped from about 28 percent to close to 50 percent in that time period. In fact, crashes and injuries among the 50- to 59-year-olds showed the most rapid increase, while injuries in the 20- to 29-year-olds showed the most rapid decline.
"We made the clinical observation that older patients – people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s – were being injured on motorcycles with increasing frequency," said Mark Gestring, director of the trauma program at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC). "We wanted to see if this observation was true on a national level, and we found that it was."
Aging road warriors
The researchers used data from the National Trauma Databank, and reviewed the records of 61,689 motorcyclists aged 17 to 89 years who had been involved in a motorcycle crash.
The average age of motorcycle riders involved in crashes steadily increased over the course of the study period, which is consistent with statistics from the Motorcycle Industry Council showing the average age of motorcycle ownership rose from 33 to 40 between 1998 and 2003.
The URMC study found that for riders over 40, injury severity, length of stay in the hospital or intensive care unit, and mortality were all higher compared with younger riders. Depending on the severity of the original injury, the risk of dying was also one-and-a-half to two times more likely in those over 40.
The older motorcyclists were also more likely to die from less severe injuries than younger riders, to spend at least 24 hours in the intensive care unit, and to have more pre-existing conditions and complications, such as heart attack or infection, that contribute to extended hospital stays.
"Treating a 60-year-old who has been in a motorcycle accident is very different from treating a 21-year-old who has been in a similar accident – 60-year-olds bring a lot more medical baggage with them, and this can adversely impact outcomes following injury," Gestring said.
Aging bones partly to blame
Age-related changes, such as decreases in bone strength and brain size, could make older riders more susceptible to injury, the researchers say.
Impaired vision, delayed reaction time, and altered balance, all of which accompany the natural aging process, could contribute to crashes or mishaps among older motorcyclists. This is consistent with the researchers' finding that older riders crashed more often as a result of loss of control than their younger counterparts.
Injury patterns remained consistent over the study period, and broken arms and legs were found to be the most common injuries, occurring in approximately 25 percent to 40 percent of the cases studied. The most common severe injuries were chest and head injuries, and researchers found significantly higher proportions of such calamities among older riders compared with younger riders.
There were, however, two main similarities between younger and older riders: helmet use and alcohol use. For both age groups, helmets were used in approximately 73 percent of the cases, and alcohol was seen as a factor in close to one-third of motorcycle accidents.
For those who are considering taking a ride as the weather turns nice, Gestring had some clear advice.
"As people start to dust off their motorcycles this spring, older riders should take an extra measure of caution; if an accident happens they'll often pay a higher price than younger riders," he warned.
The study was published in the March issue of the journal The American Surgeon.
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Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.