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Dog Walks Are Good Exercise for Seniors—But Be Careful, Fractures Are on the Rise

Injuries caused by walking a dog on a leash have doubled in the last 15 years for Americans aged 65 and over

(Karen Arnold via Wikicommons under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication )
smithsonian.com

Owning a dog has many advantages; for one, pooches need lots of exercise, which in turn benefits their human. Researchers have previously established that dog owners put in more steps per day and even get outside more in the winter than pupless individuals.

For the aging population, however, keeping up with an active doggo can be a challenge. Over the last 15 years, the number of seniors who have suffered fractures while walking their dogs on a leash has doubled, with almost 4,400 experiencing dog-walking injuries in 2017 alone, according to a new report published in the journal JAMA Surgery.

Jaimo Ahn, a medical doctor and co-director of orthopedic trauma and fracture reconstruction at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to look into the prevalence of dog-walking fractures after he and his colleagues realized how common canine-related injuries are. To get a handle on the numbers nationally, Ahn and his team analyzed the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System managed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The system tracks 100 emergency rooms across the country, enough to produce an accurate representative sample of the types of problems and injuries affecting Americans.

Linda Carroll at Reuters reports that the data shows there were 32,624 fractures in older people caused by dog-walking between 2004 and 2017. Those numbers jumped from 1,671 injuries in 2004 to 4,396 in 2017. Women were the most impacted, suffering 79 percent of the injuries. Half of the patients experienced fractures in their arms, including fingers, wrists, hands, arm bones or shoulders. Most concerning, however, 17 percent of the injuries were hip fractures, which can permanently reduce mobility and lead to an increased risk of death for ten years after the break.

Ahn says the study doesn’t address exactly why the number of injuries has increased so much in the last decade and half. But he suspects it’s because seniors these days are more active than in the past, leading to injuries.

The study doesn’t mean older people should surrender their dogs at the shelter, nor does this mean sitting on the couch all day is a good idea. But it does mean seniors should be extra cautious.

“If you have a dog companion, that’s great,” Ahn tells Reuters’ Carroll. “But as you walk your dog, be mindful and careful. Beyond that, use the walking as an opportunity to ask how fit and strong you feel. And then make a plan—with your doctor, family or friends—to become more fit, strong and healthy.”

Tim Church, a preventative medicine specialist at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana who was not involved in the study, tells Neighond at NPR that even though the number of injuries seems concerning, 4,000 injuries out of a population of 50 million individuals over the age of 65 is relatively small. The risks of taking a spill if Spot starts chasing a squirrel are far outweighed by the health consequences of just sitting on the couch all day.

“Life's a contact sport with risk everywhere you look,” Church says. “There's risk with jogging, biking, driving to work and, of course, walking a dog.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the leading cause of death among the elderly are heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory disease. Unintentional injuries, which include falls, car accidents and poisonings, are the seventh leading cause of death for the elderly.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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