Drowning and other injuries related to aquatic activities at ages 55 years and older in Australia

5 May 2009

About 100 people aged 55 years or older die by drowning each year in Australia. About another 75 per year are admitted to hospital following non-fatal drowning. About one-third of these cases have characteristics that suggest that they were severe. 

Of the drowning deaths, about 72% are unintentional, 24% are suicides, 3% are of undetermined intent and 1% are homicides. 

The annual average of 75 unintentional drowning deaths per annum in this age group comprises deaths in natural bodies of water (n = 26), swimming pools (n = 6), bath-tubs (n = 5), events related to water transport (n = 11), storms and floods (n = 1) and miscellaneous and unspecified cases (n =  26). 

Drowning accounts for only a small proportion of the hospitalised cases recorded as occurring at places and during activities that can be regarded as ‘aquatic’. This is so for persons aged 55 years and older and for persons of all ages. For persons aged 55 years and older, the annual average count of cases at aquatic places was 788, of which  52 (7%) involved non-fatal drowning. Equivalent annual average case counts for Activities identifiable as aquatic were 534 (total) and 57 (non-fatal drowning, 11%). 

Falls were a common mechanism of injury for people aged 55 years and older hospitalised due to events at aquatic places. Falls accounted for 40% of all cases occurring at places identifiable as aquatic, 67% of those at swimming centres and 57% of those at beaches.

Hence, while prevention of drowning remains the primary issue for aquatic safety (because of the potential for fatalities and serious persisting morbidity) attention to the prevention of other types of injuries that occur in aquatic settings is also warranted. 

This Briefing is based on a preliminary investigation of this topic. Further investigation is feasible on the basis of the data sources presently available. 

Written by James E Harrison, Renate Kreisfeld and Geoffrey Henley

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