Aging Farmers' Health and Safety

Results from a recent study conducted by Deborah Reed, PhD, MSPH, RN, a researcher at the University of Kentucky's College of Nursing, revealed that 40% of 1,423 Kentucky and South Carolina farmers ages 50 and over defined health as "the ability to work." Because most farmers never retire fully, they need proper health screenings and care to stay productive during their advanced years.

Farmers' stark commitment to work is borderline obsessive, and researchers are beginning to develop new guidelines to better understand farmers, whose strong cultural and emotional ties to the farm drive their work ethic. Farmers in the horse industry are no different, continuing to work hard even as they age.

"My research has focused on helping physicians, nurses, and staff understand the culture of farming and learn how to relate to farmers," said Reed. "Asking the right questions is critical."

Reed comes from a farming family in Versailles, Ky., so she understands the unique challenges farmers face, especially as they age. She has 75-year-old family members who are still farming.

The average Kentucky farmer in Kentucky is 57, 13 years older than the average worker. Kentucky's farming population mirrors that of the entire United States, making this a nationwide topic.

"Over half of all farmers are bivocational, meaning they have two jobs," Reed explained. "But farming is not always—or even usually—reported as the primary job, so doctors don't know to look for skin cancers or cataracts. They think the patient has a desk job or works indoors, when in fact, he or she farms and faces sun exposure, mental health pressures, and more."

One striking statistic is that farmers have the highest suicide rates of any occupation. Farmers are exposed to unrelenting and multifaceted stress and pressure. In addition to hard physical labor and long work days throughout the year, a farmer must endure the vagaries of nature and livestock, adverse weather conditions, market fluctuations, government policy changes, and family pressures. The resulting taxing emotional stress can be difficult to manage, and in some cases it leads to suicide.

In addition to mental stress, physical problems can develop early because farmers are exposed to countless hazards throughout extended careers.

"Senior farmers are still exposed to all the hazards even after they 'retire,' because almost all remain involved and active on the farm to some extent," Reed said.

She points out other health issues related to farming:

  • Falls are one of the leading causes of death. Most falls occur from the same level—what Reed calls "trips and slips." Mundane accidents such as being kicked by a horse, slipping in mud, or falling on ice frequently cause injury as well.
  • Farm work routinely exposes farmers to loud, potentially damaging noises. For example, the ear that is turned to the front of the tractor, where the exhaust is loudest, will have greater hearing loss. As farmers age, they might not be able to hear noises such as approaching people or machinery and verbal warnings, increasing the danger to themselves and others.
  • Farmers often remove clothing to stay cool during warm months, so more skin is exposed to the sun's damaging rays. Many don't apply sunscreen and might not practice skin self exams regularly. Many farmers wear baseball caps, which increase sun exposure of the ears--especially the upper crest--and the back of the neck. Working without a shirt or in sleeveless tops also increases the risk of sun damage.
  • Repeated sun exposure from farming also accelerates the risk of developing cataracts. Statistically, farmers are more likely to develop cataracts at a younger age, and other than professional fisherman, they have the highest occupational rate of cataracts, largely because they do not wear protective sunglasses.
  • Farmers often ignore their own health and safety, skipping vaccines such as tetanus routinely and visiting the doctor infrequently.

"Because farming is usually a lifelong occupation, anyone involved in farming, including those in the horse industry, should be aware of these issues, even at young ages," Reed said.

Senior farmers bring a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to an operation. Simple attention to health and safety, such as using sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats, and hearing protection can safeguard the farmer's long-term health. Sturdy shoes or boots and a walking stick can eliminate many trips and slips. For more information on farm health and safety, visit or contact Reed at

Karin Pekarchik is an editorial officer in UK's Agricultural Communications Services.

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