In every Arizona county except one, the leading cause of injury death in 2005 was car accidents. In Yavapai County, where about a third of the residents are over 65, the leading cause was falling.
In Yuma County, falls were the second cause of death among elderly residents in 2005, with motor vehicle accidents the leading cause and suicides by firearms the third highest cause of death among the elderly, according to statistics from the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Yavapai County highlights the growing problem of falls among Arizona's elderly. In 2004, the state ranked sixth in the nation in the number of fatal falls among those over 65, and the total rose 37 percent from 2001 to 2005, according to a report from the AZDHS.
Those who survive falls can expect long hospitalizations and steep hospital bills. There were around 9,000 fall-related hospitalizations and 22,000 emergency room visits involving Arizona seniors in 2005, state health officials say. The average cost for a fall-related hospital stay was more than $30,000, which doesn't include doctors' bills or rehabilitation.
"Falls are so expensive because of the age of those who fall, who likely have other conditions, and that prolongs hospitalization," said Tomi St. Mars, injury prevention program manager for the AZDHS.
Increased hospital stays can further endanger the elderly, she said, as they are at risk for illnesses such as pneumonia.
"It's kind of a domino effect," St. Mars said. "So we have to ask, 'How do we keep someone from falling to prevent that from starting?'"
In Yavapai County, health officials have launched programs to help seniors avoid falling, including having personal trainers visit seniors' homes to work on strength and balance, according to Ronda Atkinson, the county's disease prevention program manager.
"Strength and balance are really the things that are most important for preventing falls," Atkinson said. "It's about empowering them to take responsibility for their health."
Such programs can be costly and difficult to carry out in rural areas, however, because the senior population is spread out, Atkinson said.
"A lot of the elderly are isolated in areas where it's difficult to get to them," Atkinson said. "And we don't have mass transportation, which prevents them from getting to classes."
The SouthEastern Arizona Governments Organization, which serves Cochise, Graham, Greenlee and Santa Cruz counties, urges seniors to adopt healthy lifestyles and exercise but lacks the resources to offer the types of programs that Yavapai County does, said Kathleen Heard, director of the group's Area Agency on Aging.
"We know it's a huge problem, but we haven't formalized any programs," Heard said.
"We tell our older community to get out and walk, but it can be dangerous because there aren't a lot of sidewalks and some are filled with cracks, which can lead to falls. This is true of Nogales, Bisbee and a lot of places. It's a problem of infrastructure."