New report shows Alaskans die from traumatic brain injury at twice the national average

Two people without helmets ride on an ATV toward a white pickup truck.
Riders drive an ATV along a Bethel road. For Alaskans aged 15-34, the most frequent cause of emergency room visits and hospitalizations is motor vehicle crashes. (Dean Swope/KYUK)

Alaska’s death rate from traumatic brain injuries – or TBIs – is the highest in the nation. That’s according to a recent report from the Alaska Health Department. 

Dr. Katherine Newell is an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, assigned to Alaska. She put together the report. 

“The fact that one in four deaths in Alaskans aged under 30 was related to a TBI is a shocking statistic and so many of these deaths are preventable,” said Newell. 

Traumatic brain injuries range from a mild bump on the head to a deadly punctured skull. The report looked at rates of emergency room visits, hospitalization, and death for TBIs over five years–from 2016 to 2021.

Suicides and accidental falls caused the most TBI deaths in Alaska. And Newell said there was a lot of variation by age group. 

“For older adults aged over 85 years, 72% of TBI-related deaths were due to unintentional fall, whereas in younger adults, the largest proportion of deaths were due to suicide,” said Newell.

According to the report, Alaska Native and American Indian people were disproportionately likely to have serious or deadly traumatic brain injuries — at a rate three times higher than the national average. 

Vehicle crashes seriously injured or killed the most young adults. And for people in Northern Alaska, ATV and snow machine accidents were likely to cause serious head injuries. 

Over 40% of deaths due to traumatic brain injury were suicide by firearms. In Alaska, suicide rates are higher for young men, age 25-34, and Native Alaskans and American Indian people. 

Newell says traumatic brain injuries can have lasting effects, so prevention is the only real cure. 

Because the causes of TBIs vary so much, in the report, she suggests a variety of ways to prevent injuries. 

“A good strategy is to think about how we are supporting our older community and our elders to prevent slips and falls, especially in the winter months,” said Newell. 

The report mentions existing community programs that distribute ice cleats to elders. Other suggested interventions include firearm safety education, healthcare screenings for elders, and free helmet giveaways. 

The report also found many people in Alaska had trouble getting care after they experienced a traumatic brain injury, usually due to cost or geography. 

RELATED: Report shows wide regional disparities seen in Alaska colorectal and lung cancer rates

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Rachel here.

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