Elderly patients


Due to a decline in birth rates and increased life expectancy, New Zealand’s population is aging. In 2022, 1 in 6 New Zealanders were aged 65 years or older with the number likely to hit 1 million in 2028.


From https://www.health.govt.nz/nz-health-statistics/health-statistics-and-data-sets/older-peoples-health-data-and-stats


This is significant as the elderly have increased morbidity and mortality from trauma as compared to their younger counterparts. They are more likely to suffer serious sequelae from more minor mechanisms and due to comorbidities and medications, and are less able to compensate physiologically after trauma.

Falls are the most common cause of injury in the elderly, followed by motor vehicle accidents.

However, studies have shown that overall trends in mortality from severe trauma for elderly have improved over recent years, possibly from evolution of trauma systems but also because the traditional definition of elderly (age >65) seems quite “young” these days with many patients >65 being extremely fit and active with more physiological reserve.

The degree of frailty is likely a better indicator of outcomes following trauma rather than a cut off age, though frailty is difficult to define in the injured population.


Airway and cervical spine

  • Poor mouth opening
    • Difficult intubation
  • If edentulous – potentially difficult BVM


  • C spine stiffness/degenerative changes
    • Implications for intubation
    • Increased risk of C spine injury with minor mechanism

eg: odontoid peg #s relatively common from simple falls from standing

Have a lower index of suspicion for significant cervical spine injuries in the elderly even with minor trauma.
Plain films of the cervical spine can be of very limited utility in the elderly due to degenerative change. Perform a CT if concerned. 



  • Decreased vital capacity, functional residual capacity
    • Decreased respiratory reserve
  • Chronic airways disease
  • Decreased elasticity of chest wall


  • Elderly who sustain a rib # have 2x mortality/morbidity of younger patients
    • For each extra rib # – mortality increases by 19%, risk of pneumonia increases by 27%2
Have a low threshold for admitting elderly patients with chest wall injuries for analgesia and monitoring



  • Decreased cardiovascular reserve
    • Increased sensitivity to hypo/hypervolaemia
    • Decreased response to circulating catecholamines
      • May not mount usual physiological responses to blood loss
    • Baseline hypertension
      • May not appreciate signs of shock
    • Underlying cardiovascular disease
    • Meds: eg betablockers
      • May be falsely reassured by a “normal” heart rate
      • Unable to mount tachycardia to deal with decreased intravascular volume, can’t increase CO adequately
    • More likely to have aortic injury (even with “minor” mechanisms)
A HR of >90 or SBP <110 should be considered abnormal in the elderly and trigger concern for serious underlying injury



  • Brain atrophy – brain mass decreases by 10% by age 70
    • Increased risk of subdural and other intracranial haemorrhages
  • Underlying cognitive impairment can impede evaluation
  • Anticoagulation increases the risk of intracranial injury
  • Significant increase mortality in elderly with TBI
    • GCS <9 = 80% chance of death/serious disability 3
Have a lower threshold for CT brain imaging – see the Canadian CT head rules


Musculoskeletal injuries

  • Decreased bone density
    • More prone to #
  • More friable skin and soft tissues
    • Poor wound healing
  • Increased risk of complications from pelvis injuries


Abdominal injuries

  • More difficult assessment
    • Alterations in pain sensation with increased age/stoicism
      • More unreliable examination
    • Declining GFR with age
      • Issues with obtaining contrast studies


Other issues

  • Under-triaging, underestimation of severity of trauma, downplaying of more minor mechanisms
  • Less analgesia often provided
    • Older patients can be stoic, but are also at risk of opioid related side effects including hypotension, respiratory depression and delirium.
    • Consider early use of other analgesia modalities eg: regional blocks
  • Consider that an acute medical event may have caused the trauma
    • Take a careful history, especially around falls
  • Consider NAI/elder abuse





  1. Hashmi A, Ibrahim-Zada I, Rhee P, Aziz H, Fain MJ, Friese RS, Joseph B. Predictors of mortality in geriatric trauma patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. 2014 Mar 1;76(3):894-901.
  2. Labib N, Nouh T, Winocour S, Deckelbaum D, Banici L, Fata P, Razek T, Khwaja K. Severely injured geriatric population: morbidity, mortality, and risk factors. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. 2011 Dec 1;71(6):1908-14.
  3. Bulger EM et al. Rib fractures in the elderly. J Trauma. 2000:48(6):1040-6)
  4. LeBlanc J, Guise ED, Gosselin N, Feyz M. Comparison of functional outcome following acute care in young, middle-aged and elderly patients with traumatic brain injury. Brain Injury. 2006 Jan 1;20(8):779-90.
  5. Carpenter CR, Arendts G, Hullick C, Nagaraj G, Cooper Z, Burkett E. Major trauma in the older patient: evolving trauma care beyond management of bumps and bruises. Emerg Med Australas. 2017 Aug 1;29(4):450-5.

Related Guidelines

About this guideline

Published: January 2018
Author: Emma Batistich
Updated: April 2021, May 2024 (Emma Batistich) 
Approved by: Northern Region Trauma Network, Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora – Northern Region, NRHL, St. John 
Review due: 2 years