Weakened bones, slower reflexes, changes in memory, vision and hearing can take a toll
Wrinkles aren’t the only thing that come with an aging body. No one – including farmers – is immune from the cardiovascular changes, weakened bones, slowed reflexes, memory loss, vision and hearing changes and more.
In the farming industry, staying healthy is a key to avoiding injury or death. As time takes its toll on a person’s physical condition, paying attention to health and working in a safe manner become even more important.
The average age of America’s farmers today is 58. At that stage of life, even if signs of aging aren’t obvious, physical changes are occurring.
In comparison to their younger counterparts, farmers advancing in age are more likely to experience events like tractor rollovers, contact with livestock, and slips, trips or falls.
“Falling from the steps of equipment is a very common injury among farmers who are 55 or older,” said Ellen Duysen, outreach specialist for the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health based at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health. “Some aspects of aging, which affect every person, include poorer quality sleep, which leads to increased fatigue during the day. Everyone experiences slower response times as they get older. Hearing and vision loss are common, and things like arthritis or a previous injury can restrict mobility.”
When movements become difficult or painful, the risk of injury around farm equipment increases significantly. Reduced grip strength and decreased ability to tolerate heat and cold also put any aging person at risk, especially farmers.
“For farmers taking care of livestock during calving season in January or February, our aging body doesn’t respond the same way it did when we were young,” Duysen said. “Certain medications can also affect our physical ability. We may see slowed reaction times, drowsiness or other physiological symptoms.”
Because brain function changes with age, farmers may find they struggle with depression more than they did in the early years of their career. Physical reflexes slow while distraction is more likely and coordination is less efficient.
“One of the most important things a farmer can do to protect their health is ensure that their health care provider knows about the work they’re doing on the farm,” Duysen said. “If a farmer is 70 or older, their health care provider may assume they’re no longer active on the farm. Often that’s not the case.”
Well-informed health care providers may be able to manage medications to help avoid drowsiness or other major physical symptoms that could put an active farmer at high risk for injury. A thorough physical examination also can help health care providers identify vision or hearing impairment and recommend or implement treatments to help improve those conditions.
“Balance can often be a problem for the entire aging population, but especially for farmers,” Duysen said. “Maintaining immunizations such as tetanus is something we may overlook as we age, but it’s very important to staying safe on the farm.”
Duysen emphasized the need for farmers to have a clear and ongoing plan for accessing help in the event of some kind of accident that renders them unable to use a cell phone or walkie-talkie.
“I know of a farmer in Missouri who lost his life because he couldn’t reach his cell phone to call for help,” Duysen said. “If there had been a plan for someone to check on him frequently, his life would have been spared. That scenario plays out too often on the farm.
Working smart is always important, but the physical changes age imposes make it even more critical for aging farmers. Since many farmers experience some kind of back injury or chronic pain by age 50, minimizing twisting and lifting activities reduces the risk of further injury.
“Make sure you know how to lift safely,” Duysen said. “Take frequent breaks if you’re doing a lot of lifting, and stay hydrated. Dehydration quickly leads to fatigue, which is a leading cause of injury on the farm.”
Bones naturally shrink in size and density over time. Changes in our bones also can result in greater potential for fractures. At the same time, muscles, tendons and joints may lose strength and flexibility. Replacing worn or high steps on tractors and equipment can reduce the chance of falls and sprains.
There’s nothing anyone can do to prevent changes to hearing that come with advancing age. But we can prevent further noise-induced hearing damage. Continuing to wear hearing protection – even if you have lost some hearing – is essential. Duysen reminded farmers to “save what you have left.”
Vision changes may include difficulty seeing in low-light conditions, perceiving colors differently or experiencing dry eyes. Duysen advised purchasing a pair of vented safety goggles to wear in windy or dusty conditions to reduce eye irritation.
The fat layer under our skin diminishes as we age, and we sweat less, making us more susceptible to heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Couple that with the fact that aging bodies become less efficient in regulating body temperature, and it’s easy to see why high temperatures are dangerous for aging farmers.
Staying hydrated and maintaining proper electrolyte balances in high temperature situations are critical to avoiding heat-related illness.
Changing sleep patterns are another part of the aging process. Falling asleep and staying asleep may not be as easy.
“If you want quality sleep, keep the TV, your cell phone and your pets out of the bedroom,” Duysen said. “Those are the top three things that negatively impact everyone’s sleep.”
She said reducing stress, eating a balanced diet, practicing good sleep habits, continuing to actively learn new things, and drinking ample water are all ways to help reduce aging effects and be at our best as we work on the farm.