Tripping Seniors to Prevent Future Falls

Tripping the elderly on purpose would seem to be a cruel joke. Falls among seniors (those 65 or older) are the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma. They are also the leading cause of injury death. So who could possibly think that tripping older adults is a good idea?

Researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago have developed a lab-built treadmill system that trips its subjects unexpectedly. After striding several paces, a sliding section of the treadmill walkway suddenly moves, causing the test subject to stumble.

Leading the research is physical therapy professor, Clive Pai. He calls the method a potential "vaccine against falls." He’s seen elderly subjects fall a few times on the treadmill (saved from actual injury by a harness), and then, after several “trips”, they subconsciously learn how to keep themselves upright.

Sensors attached to various points on the experiment participants track and analyze the muscle groups involved in catching oneself before one falls. The idea is to then concentrate on strengthening and improving the range of motion of those muscles. In theory, this will help prevent the injuries incurred when an elderly person falls to the floor.

"This is all implicit learning. We don't give any instruction. They don't have to be motivated — they're naturally motivated because they don't want to be on the floor," Prof. Pai said.

The National Institute on Aging is providing the five-year, $1 million grant to study and develop the treadmill system. There are plans to enroll 300 participants within the next five years. Researchers then hope to bring the treadmills to the public via doctor’s offices and physical therapy centers.

This photo taken on July 28, 2014, shows a UIC physical therapy assistant professor Tanvi Bhatt, left, with research subject Mary Kaye, 81 as they demonstrate a treadmill balance session. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Until this research proves effective in preventing falls and the treadmills are widely available, consider these 6 tips to prevent falls from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Consult a doctor to check eye and ear health and review medications.
  • Exercise to improve strength, coordination, balance and flexibility.
  • Wear sensible shoes or none at all. No high heels, slippers, thick-soled shoes. Stocking feet, especially on hardwood floors, can also be hazardous.
  • Keep walkways clear of clutter. Use non-slip mats in showers. Secure rugs with double-stick tape. Keep household items like dishes, food and clothing within easy reach. Use plenty of lamps with bright bulbs.
  • Turn on lights when going up and down stairs.
  • Hand rails, grab bars, raised toilet seats can be of great assistance in the bathroom. Place a plastic seat in the shower along with a hand-held shower nozzle.

Senior caregivers need to know how to maintain a clean, safe, and healthy environment. Caregiverlist Basic Training, powered by Caregiver Training University, provides a training module to help prevent accidents and injuries in the home.

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