Skip to main content

Occupational health for an ageing workforce: do we need a geriatric perspective?


Extending retirement ages and anti-age discrimination policies will increase the numbers of older workers in the future. Occupational health physicians may have to draw upon the principles and experience of geriatric medicine to manage these older workers. Examples of common geriatric syndromes that will have an impact on occupational health are mild cognitive impairment and falls at the workplace. Shifts in paradigms and further research into the occupational health problems of an ageing workforce will be needed.

Introduction – the ageing workforce

The world is undergoing unprecedented ageing and in many developed countries, the workforce is contracting due to falling birthrates, longer life expectancies and changing population demographics [1]. Experts have warned that if society continues to reduce the number of people over the age of 50 who are not actively working, economies will suffer a cumulative annual loss of GDP [2]. Some countries like the UK are already introducing anti-age discrimination policies laws and retirement ages are projected to increase in the coming years [3]. Employers now have to face the prospect of having workers in their sixties. In New Zealand, the number of older persons aged 45 to 65 years is expected to increase from 35% to 45% within the working-age population between 2001 and 2051 [4]. The International Labour Organisation estimates that the number of economically active persons aged 65 years and above will increase from 83.2 million persons in the world in 2000 to 136 million persons by 2020 [5]. Occupational physicians are accustomed to managing middle-aged workers and their associated health problems but are we ready to manage elderly-related illnesses that may impact worker performance and health?

What does geriatric medicine has to offer?

Geriatrics is the branch of medicine that is devoted to the care of older people [6]. The relatively young discipline addresses the unique needs and circumstances of the elderly and is characterized by recognition of geriatric syndromes. Examples of conditions that affect the elderly include falls, impaired cognition, disability, malnutrition, incontinence and iatrogenesis. At first glance, most of these syndromes are associated with advanced age and it is unlikely that such an old person would still be working and hence be seen by an occupational physician. However, when one considers that many geriatric syndromes can present in fifth decade of life, it becomes apparent that knowledge of geriatric syndromes may be relevant to occupational health. This paper will use 2 common geriatric syndromes that may impact on the occupational health of older workers to illustrate this.

Dementia and mild cognitive impairment

Dementia is often thought of as a psychiatric disease of the old. However, a paper by McMurtray et al found that 30% of patients presenting at the Veteran's Affairs Medical Center Memory Disorders clinic between 2001 and 2004 for evaluation of memory or cognitive decline had an age of onset of less than 65 years (early onset dementia [EOD]) [7]. Compared to the late-onset dementia [LOD] group, the EOD patients were less severely impaired on presentation. Hence, it is possible that an older worker may present with onset of dementia before retirement which can interfere with work or endanger the lives of fellow co-workers. It is interesting to note that the EOD group had significantly more dementia attributed to traumatic brain injury, alcohol abuse, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and frontotemporal lobe degeneration than the LOD patients which had significantly more Alzheimer's disease compared to the EOD group. With the exception of the last condition, the causes of EOD are largely preventable. Hence, occupational physicians can play an important role in the prevention, early detection and treatment of EOD.

One of the earliest cognitive domains lost in dementia is executive functioning involving understanding complex material, and this can occur before memory loss [8]. This has implications because most clinical diagnostic criteria for dementia involve subjective and objective memory impairment and functional decline. Even the clinical diagnostic criteria for mild cognitive impairment (MCI) requires subjective or objective memory loss but without functional impairment (Table 1) [9]. An older worker in a job requiring high-level mental functioning may be making poor decisions and losing millions of dollars for the company long before anyone perceives any impairment of memory. Clinically, the distinction between benign senescent forgetfulness (normal process of ageing) and mild cognitive impairment is subtle and this makes the detection of early loss of executive functioning extremely difficult to detect.

Table 1 Various definitions of mild cognitive impairment (Adapted from Chong and Sahadevan [9])

Fitness for work for workers which require intact cognition will continue to be a challenge with older workers. The earliest an occupational health physician can hope to detect cognitive decline would be when a worker has MCI. This intermediate stage between normal ageing and dementia has received increasing attention because current therapies for dementia are most effective at the early stages and 12% of cases with MCI convert to dementia annually, reaching 80% at 6 years follow-up [10]. Unfortunately, there is currently no consensus guideline for the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment but there is evidence for its continued monitoring and treatment [11]. Current cognitive screening tools to detect dementia have not been validated to detect MCI and clinicians have to rely on special cognitive tests. Prospective studies of people with memory-loss MCI have shown that tests involving episodic memory (such as delayed recall of word lists [12] and associative learning [13]), semantic memory [14], attention processing [15] and mental speed can consistently predict which patients will develop dementia. Conversely, in a retrospective study of people with MCI who later developed Alzheimer's dementia, verbal and visual memory, associative learning, vocabulary, executive function and other verbal tests of general intelligence were impaired at baseline [16]. Such tests should be administered by trained personnel and occupational physicians may need training in such assessments.

Falls and injuries at the workplace

Falls and injuries are common in the workplace but for older persons, they are associated with greater morbidity and mortality [17, 18]. Slips, trips and falls are more common among older workers [19] and the resulting occupational injuries are more likely to result in hospitalization [20], fatalities [21] and fractures, particularly among older women [22]. However, falls in older persons are different from the younger population because there is a higher prevalence of medical problems that predispose older persons to falls. Examples of such medical problems that increase the risk of falls and injuries include strokes, dementia, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, Stokes-Adam attacks from cardiac arrhythmias, vertebro-basilar insufficiency from cervical spondylosis, anaemia, medications with anti-cholinergic properties (e.g. anti-histamines, tricyclic anti-depressants) and postural hypotension from anti-hypertensives or dehydration.

When an older worker falls often, there is a need to move beyond treating injuries and improving workplace safety and towards a thorough assessment of the older worker to ascertain why a previously well worker is now sustaining falls and injuries at the workplace. There have been few published studies on the assessment of risk factors for falls among older workers at the workplace. Evidence from e geriatric medicine literature has consistently shown that multi-factorial assessment for falls risk factors, followed by interventions targeted at identified risk factors, have been effective in preventing further falls [2325]. Such targeted assessment and management strategies have been found by a Cochrane Database Systematic Review to reduce occurrence of falls among older persons in the community by 25 to 39% [26]. Specific recommendations for fall risk factor assessment are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2 Recommended Components of a Clinical Assessment and Management of Older Persons with Previous Falls (Adapted from Tinetti [27])

To date, there is no randomized control trial to determine effectiveness of interventional strategies to reduce the occurrence of falls among older persons in the workplace, so occupational physicians may need to turn to past studies on older persons in the community. Successful interventions to reduce falls include review and possible reduction of medications, balance and gait training, muscle-strengthening exercises, evaluation and strategies to reduce postural hypotension and targeted cardiovascular assessment and treatment. (Table 2)

The role of laboratory testing and other investigations in fall assessment has not been well studied [27]. Laboratory tests that may be reasonable in the assessment of an older worker who has fallen include a complete blood count (to detect anaemia or a raised total white count suggesting a sub-clinical infection), serum electrolytes, glucose, vitamin B12, blood urea nitrogen and creatinine (to detect serum abnormalities that can cause impaired judgement or muscle weakness) and thyroid function (to detect hypothyroidism which can cause confusion and muscle weakness). In occupational settings with exposure to neurotoxins that can cause cognitive impairment, neuropathy and muscle weakness, such as metals (e.g. arsenic, lead, manganese), solvents (e.g. carbon disulphide, n-hexane and methyl-n-butyl ketones) and pesticides (e.g. organochlorine and organophosphate compounds), screening for these chemicals would be vital. Neuro-imaging is only needed when there is history of head injury with loss of consciousness, focal neurological findings on physical examination or when a central nervous system process is suspected from history or examination.

More studies are needed to determine if the risk factors for falls among older workers are similar to older persons in the community. However, until more information is known, an older worker who falls, whether at work or not, deserves a full fall risk factor assessment and appropriate intervention to improve workplace safety and maintain employability.


The future increase in numbers and age of older persons in the workplace will impact the practice of occupational medicine. To better manage these older workers, occupational physicians may increasingly need to draw upon the principles and experience of geriatric medicine. Mild cognitive impairment and falls in the workplace are two examples of syndromes associated with ageing that can have impact to the occupational health of older workers. Further research into the occupational health problems of older workers is also needed.


  1. United Nations Population Fund: Overview of Population Ageing and Its Implications. Population Ageing and Development: Social, Health and Gender Issues 2002, 17–20.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Employers Forum on Age: Age discrimination costs billions. Working Age; 2004, 4–6. []

    Google Scholar 

  3. European Union: EU Employment Directive (Article 18). 2000.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Department of Labour (New Zealand): Population ageing: where will it take us? []

  5. International Labour Organisation [] Downloaded on 18 Jan 06

  6. British Geriatrics Society: Standards of Medical Care for Older People: Expectations and Recommendations. Compendium document 1.3. Revised 2003. [–3.htm]

  7. McMurtray A, Clark DG, Christine D, Mendez MF: Early-onset dementia: frequency and causes compared to late-onset dementia. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord 2005, 21: 59–64. 10.1159/000089546

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Oppenheim G: The earliest signs of Alzheimer's disease. J Geriatr Psychiatry Neurol 1994, 7: 116–120.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Chong MS, Sahadevan S: Preclinical Alzheimer's disease: diagnosis and prediction of progression. Lancet Neurol 2005, 4: 576–579. 10.1016/S1474-4422(05)70168-X

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Peterson RC: Mild cognitive impairment: prevalence, prognosis, aetiology and treatment. Lancet Neurol 2003, 2: 15–21. 10.1016/S1474-4422(03)00262-X

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Gauthier S, Reisberg B, Zaudig M, Petersen RC, Ritchie K, Broich K, Belleville S, Brodaty H, Bennett D, Chertkow H, Cummings JL, de Leon M, Feldman H, Ganguli M, Hampel H, Scheltens P, Tierney MC, Whitehouse P, Winbald B: Mild cognitive impairment. Lancet 2006, 367: 1262–1270. 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)68542-5

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. De Jaeger CA, Hoegevorst E, Combrinck M, Budge MM: Sensitivity and specificity of neuropsychological tests for mild cognitive impairment, vascular cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. Psychol Med 2003, 33: 1039–1050. 10.1017/S0033291703008031

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Nestor PJ, Scheltens P, Hodges JR: Advances in the early detection of Alzhiemer's disease. Nat Med 2004, 10: S34–41. 10.1038/nrn1433

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  14. DeCarli C, Mungas D, Harvey D, Reed B, Weiner M, Chui H, Jagust W: Memory impairment, but not cerebrovascular disease, predicts progression of MCI to dementia. Neurology 2004, 63: 220–227.

    Article  CAS  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  15. Ameiva H, Letenneur L, Dartigues JF, Rouch-Leroyer I, Sourgen C, D'Alchee-Biree F, Dib M, Barberger-Gateau P, Orgogozo JM, Fabrigoule C: Annual rate and predictors of conversion to dementia in subjects presenting mild cognitive impairment criteria defined according to a population-based study. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord 2004, 18: 87–93. 10.1159/000077815

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Guarch J, Marcos T, Salamero M, Blesa R: Neuropsychological markers of dementia in patients with memory complaints. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2004, 19: 352–358. 10.1002/gps.1074

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Kisner SM, Pratt SG: Occupational fatalities among older workers in the United States: 1980–1991. J Occup Environ Med 1997, 39: 715–721. 10.1097/00043764-199708000-00005

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Layne LA, Landen DD: A descriptive analysis of nonfatal occupational injuries to older workers, using national probability sample of hospital emergency departments. J Occup Environ Med 1997, 39: 855–865. 10.1097/00043764-199709000-00009

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. Kemmlert K, Lundholm L: Slips, trips and falls in different work groups – with reference to age and from a preventive perspective. Applied Ergonomics 2001, 32: 149–153. 10.1016/S0003-6870(00)00051-X

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. Layne LA, Pollack KM: Nonfatal occupational injuries from slips, trips and falls among older workers treated in hospital emergency departments, United States. Am J Indust Med 1998, 46: 32–41. 10.1002/ajim.20038

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Agnew J, Suruda AJ: Age and fatal work-related falls. Hum Factors 1993, 35: 731–736.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. McNamee R, Kemmlert K, Lundholm L, Cherry NM: Injuries after falls at work in the United Kingdom and Sweden with special reference to fractures in women over 45. Occup Environ Med 1997, 54: 785–792.

    Article  CAS  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. Close J, Ellis M, Hooper R, Glucksman E, Jackson S, Swift C: Prevention of falls in the elderly trial (PROFET): a randomized controlled trial. Lancet 1999, 353: 93–97. 10.1016/S0140-6736(98)06119-4

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Wagner EH, LaCroix AZ, Grothaus L, Leveille SG, Hecht JA, Artz K, Odle K, Buchner DM: Preventing disability and falls in older adults: a population-based randomized trial. Am J Public Health 1994, 84: 1800–1806.

    Article  CAS  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  25. Tinetti ME, Baker DI, McAvay G, Claus EB, Garrett P, Gottschalk M, Koch ML, Trainor K, Horwitz RI: A mulifactorial intervention to reduce the risk of falling among elderly people living in the community. N Engl J Med 1994, 331: 821–827. 10.1056/NEJM199409293311301

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Gillespie LD, Gillespie WJ, Robertson MC, Lamb SE, Cumming RG, Rowe BH: Interventions for preventing falls in elderly people. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2001, 3: CD000340.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Tinetti ME: Preventing falls in elderly persons. N Engl J Med 2003, 348: 42–49. 10.1056/NEJMcp020719

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gerald Choon-Huat Koh.

Additional information

Competing interests

The author(s) declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors' contributions

GCHK and DK conceived and drafted the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Rights and permissions

This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Koh, G.CH., Koh, D. Occupational health for an ageing workforce: do we need a geriatric perspective?. J Occup Med Toxicol 1, 8 (2006).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: