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Traumatic brain injury (TBI) causes about 30% of all injury deaths in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines TBI as an injury that affects how the brain works.

CDC data demonstrates the detrimental scale of traumatic brain injuries on Americans. In 2021, the CDC categorized 69,473 deaths in the US as TBI-related.

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In 2020, the agency recorded more than 587 TBI-related hospitalizations daily. This figure does not include brain injuries that are only treated in the emergency department, primary care, urgent care, or those that aren’t treated at all.

How are traumatic brain injuries classified?

All brain injuries, regardless of intensity, can have potentially serious consequences. The CDC notes that most brain injuries are considered “mild,” including most concussions. However, the term “mild” relates to the injury’s intensity. These injuries are still serious and can lead to challenges in learning, memory, concentration, and problem-solving. The CDC advises people who experience the danger signs of a mild TBI to get medical care from a healthcare professional, including neuropsychological or neurocognitive tests, particularly if they have a history of multiple or repeated mild brain injuries or concussions.

Moderate and severe traumatic brain injuries — which can include a penetrating injury to the head — are less common, but contribute to thousands of deaths per year. CDC data shows that the most common causes of moderate and severe traumatic brain injuries are falls, motor vehicle crashes, assaults, and firearm-related suicide. The latter is the most common cause of TBI-related deaths nationwide.

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Which Americans are most susceptible to traumatic brain injury?

Certain groups have a greater risk of getting a traumatic brain injury or experiencing negative health outcomes as a result.

Older adults have the greatest number and rates of TBI-related hospitalizations and deaths. According to the CDC, people 75 or older account for nearly one-third of TBI-related hospitalizations and more than one-quarter of all TBI-related deaths.

Other populations also struggle with traumatic brain injury in greater proportions, according to CDC data. Men are three times as likely to die from a TBI than women at a rate of 28.3 per 100,000. Over 450,000 US service members were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury between 2000 and 2021 — approximately 80% of which occurred in non-deployed settings.

The CDC also reports that research from the US and other countries indicates almost half of people in correctional or detention facilities have a history of traumatic brain injury. People who experience homelessness are more likely than the general population to have a history of mild, moderate, or severe TBI. Survivors of intimate partner violence who suffer a traumatic brain injury due to an assault are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD, insomnia, and depression.

The growing issue of traumatic brain injuries and youth sports

In 2017, the CDC began asking about concussions in its biennial national Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In 2021, 11.9% of high school students reported having one or more sports or recreation-related concussions in the previous 12 months.

This rate represents a decline from 2017 (15.1%), but some negative trends persist. Concussion rates were higher among American Indian or Alaskan Native students, with 22.3% reporting a concussion. This rate exceeds the national average and is higher than rates for white, Asian, Hispanic, and multiracial students. In addition, ninth graders (13.3%) were more likely than 12th graders (9.5%) to report a concussion in the past 12 months.

In 2021, 15% or more of high schoolers in 11 states reported getting a concussion due to sports or physical activity.

Percent of high school students who had a concussion from playing a sport or being physically active
State Percent
Louisiana 18.6%
Mississippi 17.8%
Nebraska 17.1%
Arkansas 16.9%
Utah 16.9%
Colorado 16.7%
New Mexico 16.7%
Idaho 16%
Tennessee 15.6%
Montana 15.5%
Oklahoma 15.2%

Government data shows that young people who play tackle football are at particular risk. A CDC study published in 2021 concluded that youth tackle football athletes had a median of 378 head impacts during the season. In 2003, the CDC established the Heads Up program to provide parents, youth sports coaches, and school professionals with resources and training to proactively identify and address concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.

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Last updated
September 2023
Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System
Last updated
April 2023