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The Aging Motorcyclist

By Craig O. Olsen, M.D.
Originally Published in the IAMC Newsletter, December 2010

While this article is written primarily with the senior (age 40 and older) motorcyclist in mind, our younger and more vigorous cohorts should still pay close attention because, like it or not, we are your future and you can still learn a thing or two from us. Have you noticed that the average age of motorcyclists is advancing? I do, perhaps because I am one…an older motorcyclist that is. This is particularly reflected in the composition of our club, the Idaho Adventure Motorcycle Club. Since 1985, the average age of motorcycle owners in this country has increased from 27.1 to 47 years in 2010, indicating that the current population of motorcycle buyers is aging. Also, each year since 2001, about 22% of all new motorcycle purchases have gone to first-time motorcycle owners [1]. Who makes up this group of first-time motorcycle owners? An in-depth study of new motorcycle buyers shows that 61% of these new bike owners are age 41 and older with 8% being 61 years of age and older, and 10% of these purchasers are female [2]. Despite an overall decline in motorcycle sales during the last three years, probably as a result of the significant downturn in our economy, the decline in the dual-sport and off-road motorcycle portion of this market has been much less pronounced than other segments (street bikes, sport bikes, touring bikes, scooters, etc) [2,3].

An untoward consequence of the aging motorcycle ridership is summed up in the following statement that appeared in Science Daily earlier this year. “Motorcycle riders across the country are growing older, and the impact of this trend is evident in emergency rooms daily. Doctors are finding that these aging road warriors are more likely to be injured or die as a result of a motorcycle mishap compared to their younger counterparts [4].”

In a comprehensive study of motorcycle accidents published this year by Mark Gestring, M.D., director of the University of Rochester Medical Center Trauma Program, and colleagues reviewed injuries in motorcyclists ranging from 17 to 89 years of age in the National Trauma Databank from 1996 to 2005. They assessed the age trends and injury patterns over time and compared injury severity score, length of hospital stay, intensive care unit use, comorbidities, complications, mortality, and injury patterns for subjects 40 years and older versus those younger than 40 years of age. There were 61,689 subjects in their study. Over the study period they noted the proportion of subjects 40 years of age or older increased from 27.9 to 48.3%. The injury severity score, length of hospital stay, intensive care unit use, and mortality rates were all higher in the older age group (statistically significant). Rates of readmission to the intensive care unit, pre-existing comorbidities, and complications were also higher in the older age group. This group of researchers concluded that the average age of the injured motorcyclist is increasing and that older riders’ injuries appear to be more serious with their hospital course being more likely challenged by comorbidities and complications that result in poorer outcomes compared to the younger injured motorcyclist [5].

From the University of Southern California in Los Angeles comes another study published this year in the Journal of Trauma. The authors studied all admissions from motorcycle crashes to the thirteen Los Angeles countywide trauma centers between January 2005 and December 2007. Of the 6,530 admissions, 7.5% of them were aged 18 years or younger, 86% were aged 19 years to 55 years, and 6.5% were older than 55 years. The incidence of severe injury increased significantly with age, and the risk of sustaining severe head or chest injuries was significantly more likely in the population older than 55 years. Mortality was twofold higher in the 19-55 year old group and threefold higher in the older than 55 years group compared with the 18 years or younger age group [6].

These findings are not unique to the United States alone. Similar observations have been made in other countries including Great Britain [7], Australia [8], and India [9], to name a few.

As a thoracic surgeon, I often marvel at the resiliency of the human body to heal itself and bounce back from trauma, be it induced by an accident or from surgery. This phenomenon is more evident in younger patients. The above studies (and many more like them) demonstrate that this phenomenon of bouncing back from trauma is inversely proportional to age. A mentor during my years of surgical training referred to this as the “bouncing ball theory.” He maintained that the older you get, the less bounce (resiliency and reserve) you have to recover from trauma (or from any other illness for that matter) until finally you don’t have enough bounce to recover at all, and then you go SPLAT. The aging motorcyclist needs to be aware of this phenomenon and take an extra measure of caution when riding to minimize the risk of trauma from a motorcycle accident.

There are some obvious reasons why older riders may be at greater risk for being involved in a motorcycle accident. There is no doubt that, as we age, we progressively lose both physical and mental function. Everyone ages a little differently. For most this decline is incrementally gradual, while for others it may be more precipitous. Age-related impairment in vision, delay in reaction times, alterations in balance, and decline in physical strength and stamina (e.g. fatiguing more easily), to name a few, can contribute to crashes or mishaps among older motorcyclists. This is consistent with the above research findings that older riders crashed more often as a result of the loss of control than their younger counterparts [5-7].

Not all is doom and gloom for the older rider. After all, I maintain that aging still beats the alternative (e.g. going splat). I am reminded of one of my senior riding buddy’s adages that the older he gets, the better he was. Despite his age of 70 plus years, he still outperforms the majority of riders less than half his age, both in the technical single track on a dirt bike and in the twisties on a dual sport. How does he do it? He does it the same way many seniors do – by staying active both mentally and physically. There is a lot to be said for the sage advice to either use it or lose it. Our physical and mental capacities will deteriorate more rapidly if we do not continually use them (e.g. exercise) as we age. In an article on aging from Proficient Motorcycling, Ken Condon comments that only 10% of Americans exercise regularly and that those over 50 are most likely to be sedentary. Even simple activities, such as stretching, brisk walking, swimming, playing catch or riding a bicycle help maintain important neuromuscular function and help to avoid other age related cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension and coronary artery disease. Regular exercise also helps to maintain both muscle mass and response time [10].

For the aging rider, knowing and accounting for your age-related physical and mental deficits by alterations in your riding style will significantly lessen your risk of riding and make it more enjoyable as well. If physical endurance and mental concentration are at issue, plan shorter riding days with more frequent stops. For age-related visual changes, avoid riding after sunset. If your reaction times are slowing, don’t ride as fast as you used to and ensure extra following distance commensurate with your braking ability. These seem like simple common-sense solutions, and they are. You do not want your mind writing checks that your body cannot cash – always ride within your current ability.

We do not have to give up riding as we get older, but we do need to be aware of age-related changes in our riding ability and adjust accordingly. Currently in my 7th decade of life, I hope to enjoy motorcycling for many years to come. I enjoy being physically and mentally engaged, and I do not want to become a couch potato in my “golden years.” Perhaps you want the same. Another of my senior riding buddies has this saying attributed to George Carlin attached after his email signature: “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘…holy sh*t…what a ride!’” May your aging journey’s ride be full of wonder and joy, but please keep the rubber side down.


RITA. May 2009; Motorcycle Trends in the United States. [1]

The U.S. Motorcycle Market. [2]

Asphalt & Rubber. First Quarter 2010 Motorcycle Sales Down 21% – March 2010 Sales Down 5% (April 28, 2010). [3]

Science Daily. April 5, 2010. [4]

American Surgeon. March 2010;76(3):279-86; The aging road warrior: national trend toward older riders impacts outcome after motorcycle injury. [5]

Journal of Trauma. February 2010; 68(2):441-6; Motorcycle-related injuries: effect of age on type and severity of injuries and mortality. [6]

The Older Motorcyclist (London, January 2005). [7]

Older Motorcyclists – an Assessment of the Issues. November 2004; 11:13. N. Haworth, Monash University, Australia. [8]

BMC Public Health; January 12, 2009; 9:11; Crash characteristics and patterns of injury among hospitalized motorized two-wheeled vehicle users in urban India. [9]

Motorcycle Consumer News. August 2010; 41:39-41; Proficient Motorcycling: Aging. [10]

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