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Why Bike Injuries are on the Rise for Older Riders

Thursday, September 03, 2015
Brendan Murray, GoLocalPDX Contributor

Bicycling is becoming more dangerous, particularly for older riders. 

According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, injuries and hospitalizations increased across the United States from 1998 and 1999 to 2012 and 2013. 

Hospitalizations after bike injuries increased from 5.1 adults per 100,000 to 11.2 per 100,000. This represents a 120% increase.

Bike injuries in adults also increased, by 28%, from 96 to 123 injuries per 100,000 adults. Older adults, those over age 45, were especially prone to increased injuries. 65% of those hospitalized were over 45 years old, up from 39% of adults hospitalized at the study’s beginning, and 42% of those injured were over 45.

Kris Clark, Founder of the Community Cycling Club of Portland, told GoLocal he has seen more cyclists over the age of 40 for the past decade.

“Ever since the early 2000’s we’ve seen more and more older people coming to our rides and events,” he said. “Our membership is almost entirely made of people who are 40 or older.”

The Lance Armstrong Effect

Dr. Benjamin Breyer, who led the study, said that part of the reason for the increase could be the fame of former cyclist Lance Armstrong. When Armstrong dominated the sport in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, winning seven consecutive Tour de France races, older Americans became more interested in the sport.

As a result, older riders started hopping on their bikes more and more frequently. Because of their age, the study said, they are more prone to serious injury resulting from a bicycle accident.

"The rise in cycling in adults over 45 appears to be driving both the increase in injuries and hospital admissions, suggesting that older individuals are at increased risk for sustaining severe injury while cycling," Breyer said.

Bicycles and Baby Boomers

Clark, of the CCCP, said that the study’s findings did not surprise him. As a 66-year old cyclist, he said he can attest first hand to the toll bicycle accidents can take on older riders.

“I’ve been riding my whole life…I even did a lot of competitive races in my 20’s and 30’s and my body definitely does not bounce back as easily as it used to,” he said. “Your body is stronger when you’re younger, your bones are stronger. It’s just a lot easier to heal quickly.”

He also said that most older cyclists he meets are aware of this weakness and are quick to take advantage of safety resources.

“They’re good about taking precautions, wearing the right clothing, using lights, things like that,” he said. “They also don’t show as much risky behaviors as younger riders do.”

Still Worthwhile

While Clark recognized the injury risks inherent in cycling, he also pointed out that cycling provides older riders a relatively safe way to stay in shape.

“While there’s obviously risk as part of the equation, there are still enormous benefits to cycling,” he said. 

He pointed out that cycling does less damage on joints and muscles than many other physical activities, allowing cyclers to keep riding as they age.

“There are a lot of health benefits to it, especially for older riders” he said.  “Its much lower impact than running or playing other sports. A lot of people that come to our rides had given up on working out, but they’re able to keep cycling.”

Staying Safe

Clark, said in order to avoid injury, older riders should find safety in numbers.

“I think the group rides are definitely a great way to stay safe,” he said. He also said that older riders, especially those that did not spend large parts of their younger years on a bicycle, should learn all they can about the sport.

“I think education is also a big go-to,” he said. “Especially for those that have come into this later in life and don’t have that experience.”

Breyer, a Urologist at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed with Clark’s call for education, and advocated for cities to take a step to make their streets safer for cyclists.

"As cyclists in the U.S. shift to an older demographic, greater attention is needed in injury prevention measures through improved infrastructure, such as bike lanes, and use of personal protective equipment, such as helmets, as well as improved rider and motorist education," he said in the study.

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