Skiing, Helmets and Injuries

All of this wonderful snow made me think about one of my favorite activities: skiing/snowboarding. In the 15 years that I’ve been on the mountain, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people wearing helmets. When I was younger I didn’t wear a helmet, but now I wouldn’t be caught without one. The reason for the increase in helmet-wearing for people on the mountain seems obvious: to protect our precious brains if we fall and hit our heads.

Helmets do decrease the frequency of brain injuries such as skull lacerations or fractures, but many people who fall, while alpine skiing or while in the terrain park, still experience life-threatening, traumatic brain injuries such as concussions or the tearing of brain tissue. An article in the New York Times proposed that the continuance of these injuries is due to new, more advance equipment allowing skiers and snowboarders to ski faster and to take more risks. The article quoted a figure that seventy percent of all skiing fatalities involved men in their late teens to early thirties. After reading the full article I began to wonder how this age range is correlated with the faster skiing and more daredevil-type behavior being seen on the slope. My thoughts immediately focused on the development of the frontal lobe. A frontal lobe that is not fully developed, as seen in adolescents, is correlated with more risk-taking behavior and a higher disregard for any dangers associated with this behavior. It would make sense then that men, who generally mature later than women, would be seen to take more risks on the slopes and perform more stunts that can lead to serious brain injury, especially men in between their late teens and early thirties. Risk-taking behavior while skiing or snowboarding can be related to not only the advancement of equipment, but also to the developing/under-developed frontal lobes.

The frontal lobe (prefrontal cortex, specifically) has also been linked to Schizophrenia, our classes’ most recent topic of discussion. Part of the presumed cause of schizophrenia is a decrease in excitatory neurotransmission to the frontal lobe, leading to the negative symptoms seen in schizophrenia. The frontal lobe plays an important role in judgment and decision making, as exemplified by the developmental process (the increase in risk-taking behavior when they are not fully developed) and by what the lack of neurotransmitter activity to the lobe does in Schizophrenia (decreased social ability, anhedonia, apathy, flat/inappropriate affect).

The link to the article on ski helmet use is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/01/sports/on-slopes-rise-in-helmet-use-but-no-decline-in-brain-injuries.html?_r=0

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One thought on “Skiing, Helmets and Injuries

  1. As a skier myself, I have also noticed the increase in helmet use over the years. In the packed ski lift lines at Sugarloaf it is hard to spot a helmet-less head. However, in addition to the increase in helmet use, ski jumps are getting bigger, and as the mountain is expanding its trail system more and more un-groomed territory is being explored by adventure-seeking skiers. In addition, the snow-sports industry puts out hundreds of videos of the experts doing unimaginable stunts.

    After reading the NY Times article posted above I think you add an important point to it – risk taking behavior is correlated with having an underdeveloped frontal lobe (as seen in adolescents). Because men tend to mature later than woman it makes sense that males in their teens to early thirties account for a majority of skiing related deaths.

    This also ties into the fact that to help decrease the amount of skiing related brain injuries it is not the helmets that need to be made more effective. The risk culture associated with skiing – going of bigger jumps, trying tricks above one’s skill level, and skiing off of marked trails – has a lot to do with rates of skiing injuries. The combination of underdeveloped frontal lobes and the snow-sports industry’s projection of risk taking can be a deadly mix for some skiers and snowboarders.

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