Cyclist Bob Ostrowe was riding in a state park with his wife and some friends when he ran over a speed bump going about 35 mph, flew off his bike and hit the pavement with his head and shoulder.
The Mount Juliet, Tenn., bike rider, then age 64, was wearing a helmet, but his brain was severely bruised. A doctor at the Vanderbilt University Hospital trauma unit told his wife that he might stay in a vegetative state.
Four years after the accident, Ostrowe, a retired New York City police officer, is back on his bike, showing few obvious signs of a traumatic brain injury. “I’ll probably do it until I can’t continue anymore,” he says of his cycling.
That mindset is typical of today’s retirees, who are staying fitter and more active than their parents or grandparents, says John Morris, M.D., a surgeon who is chief of the trauma and surgical critical care division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. It also explains why they are the age group with the fastest-growing rate of traumatic injury.
A recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reported that people age 75 and older have the highest rates of hospitalization and death due to traumatic brain injury. Traffic accidents account for much of that, Morris says.
“The reason for that is pretty simple,” he says. “We’re healthier at age 65. We are therefore more mobile. We continue to be more mobile for extended periods of time. It’s certainly not unusual for people to be driving in their 80s.”
Morris says injuries peak at two times in people’s lives: one in adolescence and the other in their senior years. Today, he says, injuries are increasing more in people over age 65.
Meanwhile our “physiologic reserve”—the capacity for recovering from a traumatic injury—declines with age, Morris says, so an older patient might succumb to an injury that a healthy younger person would survive.
Morris has also noticed an “absolute explosion” in the number of older people riding motorcycles. “It’s not uncommon for us to see a 65-year-old guy and his 58-year-old wife who was on the back of their Harley, driving around, perhaps even in a group going on a trip,” he says.
While most states require motorcyclists to wear helmets, “you’re riding down the highway at 65 miles an hour and there’s nothing between you and the road,” he says. “It takes a real toll.”
In other words, the boomers are still acting like teenagers—they just don’t recover as fast.
Sid Sutton was wearing a helmet and other gear last year when he joined his son and grandson riding dirt bikes in the Southern California desert—and sailed off a 12-foot embankment.
“The last thing I heard was my grandson saying, ‘Oh, Dad, look at Grandpa go!’ ” says Sutton, a 67-year-old retired auctioneer and rodeo rider and decorated Marine Corps veteran. “The next thing I know I’m lying down there in the sand and I hear my knee pop.”
The San Diego resident is still nursing his fractured knee. “Sometimes your head is younger than your body,” he allows. “You don’t feel your age.”
But, he adds, “I don’t plan on changing anything. No, I’ll keep on going."
Michael Haederle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in People, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.