May 8, 2015

One of the fastest growing killers of older Americans isn’t a disease or a disability. It’s the accidental fall.

A new CDC report finds the rate of Americans aged 65 or over who die as a result of unintentional falls has nearly doubled since 2000; 55% of older citizens who die of unintentional injuries do so from falls, up from 33% in 2000. The death rate from falls increased from 29.6 per 100,000 in 2000 to 56.7 per 100,000 in 2013.

There’s no single reason for the steep increase in deaths from falls, and it’s far from clear what may be behind the rise, says the National Center for Health Statistics’ Ellen Kramarow, the report’s co-author. She notes the report is based on death certificate data, and there may be better reporting on underlying causes of death than in the past. But one factor some researchers point to is the continuing increase in overall life expectancy.

“People are living longer and living longer with conditions that make them frail and vulnerable to fall,” Kramarow says.

Before the growth in end-of-life care, assisted living facilities, medications, and hospital procedures designed to extend our lives, many people died from diseases or ailments that previously couldn’t be cured or treated in a way that made them manageable. Today, older Americans can often stave off death from something like heart disease or diabetes with medication that can prolong life longer than ever before. U.S. life expectancy is now at a record high of 78.8.

But as we live longer, often with diseases that once might have killed us, we get more frail — and consequently, researchers say, more likely to suffer fatal injuries from a fall.

Rates for other fatal accidental injuries like car crashes, suffocation, poisoning and fire-related deaths have remained steady over the last decade, according to the CDC. The death rate among seniors due to vehicle accidents actually went down in 2013 to about 15 per 100,000 people from 20 per 100,000 in 2000.

Overall, unintentional injuries resulted in almost 46,000 deaths for those 65 and older, making it the eighth leading cause of death. Unintentional injuries comprised 85% of all fatal injuries in 2012-2013 with suicide and homicide accounting for 15%.

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