Bicycle Helmets for Seniors
Summary: Seniors brains may require a "softer-landing" helmet. But today's helmets are optimized to protect against the hardest impacts. We have not identified any that are intentionally designed to reduce milder concussions, although current helmets do provide good lower impact protection. We recommend for senior use a helmet with a well rounded, smooth exterior that fits you well.
If you are a senior--above, say, 60 years old--looking for a helmet, there are some considerations you should be aware of.
A helmet and head injury researcher at Wayne State University named Voigt Hodgson--himself a senior at the time, now deceased--told us in 1989 that as your body ages, everything in it becomes less flexible and more brittle, including your brain. He thought that a person over 65 could receive a concussion from an impact much less severe than that required to injure a younger brain. Some other medical people disagree, but we think he was probably right. To date we have not found confirmation one way or the other in medical journals, except for articles like this one on automotive injuries indicating that aging bodies break more easily. But since the baby boomer generation is approaching seniorhood, we assume that there will be a lot more research on the subject soon. In addition, helmet researchers realize that today's helmets are optimized to protect against severe brain injury, and not primarily to protect against less severe concussions, regardless of the age of the wearer.
We have a page up with some references to medical journals that confirm that brains shrink with age, making them move more freely on impact.
The foam in today's bicycle helmets--the helmet liner, not the soft fitting foam pads--varies from firm up to really hard. Less expensive helmets generally have the firm variety. To open up big vents for the high-end helmets, designers have to make the reduced foam that remains much harder. (You can get some idea of that hardness with your thumbnail, but pick an inconspicuous place and don't tell a bike store that we told you to do it!)
If the liner foam is really less dense, you will probably find that the helmet tends to be a little thicker as well. That is because softer foam will crush more readily and you need more of it to ensure that it will not crush all the way down and "bottom out." We have noted that when we ask a lab tech why a certain helmet performed so well the usual answer is "well, that helmet has a lot of foam in it." So a senior looking for a softer landing should be selecting a helmet with thicker, less dense foam.
Over the years that they have been publishing articles on bike helmets, Consumer Reports has gotten better test results with the mid-level helmets rather than the priciest ones. Manufacturers who did not want to use expensive construction techniques compensated by reducing the vents and making the cheap helmets thicker and a little softer. Lab testing done for us in 2009 showed, however, that the cheap helmets have larger vents now, and for the samples tested there was no real difference in performance in either hard hits or lesser impacts that might produce concussions. That has caused us to rethink recommendations on finding softer foam helmets.
If you can still find a thicker helmet with less dense foam you would not give up severe impact protection. As long as the CPSC standards sticker is inside, the helmet will be designed to the same maximum impact standard as the other models in the store, and probably won't exceed it by a much wider margin than other helmets. No manufacturer can identify a helmet as appropriate for seniors, or softer-landing, because they are afraid of being sued by a senior who was injured in the helmet.
If you get too cheap, the fit systems are sometimes really poor. When we checked out the $10 helmets at Wal-Mart and Target, and the $5 ones at Five Under, we found that the buckles did not hold well, and the straps would loosen on the first ride. They can be sewn into place, but there is really no excuse for that. Some of the same stores had $15 helmets that had better fitting systems, and still did not have extreme vents or super-hard foam. The easiest to fit are Bell's True Fit models, running about $20 to $25.
We wish we had lab test data to make specific brand and model recommendations, but we don't, except for the periodic Consumer Reports articles. Those rate only a tiny fraction of what's on the market, but you can look at our report on the most recent article.
In short, we think that a senior should look at available models and concentrate on finding a good fit. Look for a model with a round, smooth outer profile and liner foam (not the squishy fitting foam pads) that is not too hard. We would avoid extreme vents. Price is not a guide. You need to think for yourself on this one, since nobody is doing it for you.
This page was updated or partially revised on: March 19, 2015.