Identifying Injury Patterns Associated With Physical Elder Abuse: Analysis of Legally Adjudicated Cases

Ann Emerg Med. 2020 Sep;76(3):266-276. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2020.03.020. Epub 2020 Jun 10.


Study objective: Elder abuse is common and has serious health consequences but is underrecognized by health care providers. An important reason for this is difficulty in distinguishing between elder abuse and unintentional trauma. Our goal was to identify injury patterns associated with physical elder abuse in comparison with those of patients presenting to the emergency department (ED) with unintentional falls.

Methods: We partnered with a large, urban district attorney's office and examined medical, police, and legal records from successfully prosecuted cases of physical abuse of victims aged 60 years or older from 2001 to 2014.

Results: We prospectively enrolled patients who presented to a large, urban, academic ED after an unintentional fall. We matched 78 cases of elder abuse with visible injuries to 78 unintentional falls. Physical abuse victims were significantly more likely than unintentional fallers to have bruising (78% versus 54%) and injuries on the maxillofacial, dental, and neck area (67% versus 28%). Abuse victims were less likely to have fractures (8% versus 22%) or lower extremity injuries (9% versus 41%). Abuse victims were more likely to have maxillofacial, dental, or neck injuries combined with no upper and lower extremity injuries (50% versus 8%). Examining precise injury locations yielded additional differences, with physical elder abuse victims more likely to have injuries to the left cheek or zygoma (22% versus 3%) or on the neck (15% versus 0%) or ear (6% versus 0%).

Conclusion: Specific, clinically identifiable differences may exist between unintentional injuries and those from physical elder abuse. This includes specific injury patterns that infrequently occur unintentionally.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Accidental Falls
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Elder Abuse / diagnosis*
  • Elder Abuse / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Facial Injuries / pathology*
  • Female
  • Health Services for the Aged
  • Humans
  • Law Enforcement
  • Legal Services
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York City
  • Prospective Studies
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / pathology*