Alaska’s TBI-related mortality rate was the highest in the nation between 2016 and 2021
Two people ride an all-terrain vehicle on Utqiagvik’s beach on Aug. 2, 2022. On the right are some of the large sandbags piled at the base of the eroding permafrost bluff. The sandbags, replenished every year, are part of Utqiagvik’s protections against storm surges and further thaw-triggered erosion. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
A new report found that Alaska had the highest rate of traumatic brain injury-related deaths in the country between 2016 and 2021. The findings indicate that traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, were more than double the average across the rest of the country.
A traumatic brain injury is a blunt force or invasive injury that impedes the regular function of the brain. TBIs can create a variety of dangerous side effects such as seizures, neurological problems or in severe cases, coma and death. Between 2016 and 2021, a quarter of Alaskans under the age of 30 who experienced a traumatic brain injury died afterward.
“Just some of those statistics, the magnitude of them, were very eye-opening,” said report author Katherine Newell. Newell is an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assigned to the state of Alaska.
She said rates of traumatic brain injury were the highest in the northern region, which includes the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs and the Nome Census Area. Alaska Native people were disproportionately impacted by this kind of injury. In older populations, unintentional falls contributed to a large percentage of deaths, especially among Alaska Natives.
However, younger populations also suffered. People aged 20-24 had the highest rate of traumatic brain injury-related deaths, with over half of those deaths caused by suicide.
In the TBI-related deaths that were attributed to suicide, almost all involved the use of a firearm.
Newell said that when it comes to suicide or other types of traumatic brain injury-related bodily harm, upstream prevention is key. That includes working to destigmatize mental health in communities and schools across the state as well as to make health care services more widely available, according to Newell.
“I think it’s important that across Alaska we continue to work on primary prevention by addressing those upstream prevention assets,” she said.
In the case of firearms, the report stated that proper gun storage was important, as it reduced the availability of lethal weapons for adults and children.
The report also found that the most common means of non-fatal TBI leading to an emergency room visit across the state was an unintentional fall. However, Southwest Alaskans saw most of their non-fatal TBI-related emergency room visits stem from assault. Other common causes of non-fatal traumatic brain injury that required a hospital visit included motor vehicle crashes, specifically crashes involving all-terrain vehicles in the northern region.
Newell said that they didn’t see much seasonality for TBI rates throughout the year, meaning that injuries were not particularly higher in one season or another. She said that higher rates of TBIs in more rural areas of the state could be due to a reliance on all-terrain vehicles that can more skillfully navigate land not connected by a road system. On all-terrain vehicles, Newell said that some riders do not wear helmets, which is a safety element that can help lower the risk of TBI.
Newell emphasized the importance of wearing helmets during any type of sports activity that could result in a brain injury. From hockey to biking to riding an all-terrain vehicle, she said that helmets are essential to protect from a potentially fatal brain injury.
”We know that helmets work and that they can save a life,” she said.
Across the state, traumatic brain injury, both fatal and non-fatal, created substantial financial burdens for the health care system, according to the report. Between 2017 and 2021, Medicaid spent over $11 million on TBI-related claims in Alaska. Newell said that patients saw expensive bills for both short- and long-term care that dissuaded some from seeking help. Offering financial support for those who are suffering from a TBI could potentially ease the economic burden on those who are already suffering, she said.
While there is much that the state can do to mitigate the effects of traumatic brain injury, Newell said that Alaskans should be focused on prevention strategies. She explained three different methods of prevention: primary, secondary and tertiary.
Primary prevention seeks to stop injury from occurring in the first place through social and policy change — such as destigmatizing mental health or encouraging helmet use. Secondary prevention is lowering the effects of TBI through initiatives like teaching Alaskans about the signs and symptoms of these injuries. And finally, tertiary prevention addresses TBIs after they have occurred, mostly by helping people live through their injury.
Newell was adamant about the importance of prevention in not only mitigating injury but in saving lives.
“Traumatic brain injuries are preventable, and that’s something Alaskans should be aware of,” she said.
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