Fall prevention for older adults has long been a focus of senior-related programs and services. You'll find ample information online for seniors and caregivers, such as information on getting a fall risk assessment, fall prevention exercises, or even fall prevention checklists for a safer home environment.
But it's not enough. Every year, one in every three adults 65 and older will fall, according to the National Safety Council. So researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago are taking matters into their own hands with an innovative approach to fall prevention: tripping seniors intentionally to train them to avoid falls in the first place.
Falls in the elderly are a serious health risk
A minor trip or fall is one thing, but falls in older adults can lead to serious injuries, such as hip fractures and even head trauma, which take months to recuperate from and often leave seniors with permanent disabilities.
In fact, NIHSeniorHealth, a website providing aging-related information to older adults created by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), names hip fractures as the leading cause of injury and loss of independence among older adults.
Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) names falls as the leading cause of both non-fatal and fatal injuries among older adults.
In short, it's a very serious concern for seniors and their loved ones. Fortunately, many falls are preventable, and increased fall prevention is precisely what researchers are trying to achieve with this new program.
Program promotes subconscious learning
According to MedicalXpress, this new approach is based on, "promising, preliminary results with a lab-built walkway that causes people to unexpectedly trip, as if stepping on a banana peel."
The same concept is being tested with computerized treadmills, and if it works, researchers hope to place specially-designed treadmills in physicians' offices, health centers and physical therapy clinics to train older adults to avoid future falls.
Clive Pai, a physical therapy professor leading this innovative research effort, says this program focuses on subconscious learning, whereas more traditional fall prevention methods have emphasized muscle training and improvements in range of motion.
The traditional methods do produce some results, but it can take many months of therapy and exercise to adequately strengthen muscles in some patients.
Intentionally tripping older adults proves promising for fall prevention
The research is funded by a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Institute on Aging and hopes to enroll 300 participants within the next five years. It's promising because the process promotes implicit learning and so far, has proven to train older adults adequately within much shorter time frames than traditional fall prevention techniques.
In preliminary research, participants were strapped to a harness—which helped them maintain their upright position if needed—and hooked up to sensors that would analyze their movements. Research students pressed a button that caused a sliding walkway to move suddenly, forcing participants to struggle to regain their balance.
The results of this preliminary research showed that 24 provoked "trips" in a single session reduced participants' chances of falling outside the lab setting by 50 percent up to one year later. This research shows promise, although it will likely require several more years of rigorous study to prove its true effectiveness.
More research on fall prevention on the way
Additionally, Medical Xpress reports that the National Institutes of Health is sponsoring a $30 million research effort. This research will evaluate other, mostly conventional fall prevention interventions that can be tailored and adapted to the individual risk profiles and needs of older adults to reduce the number of serious and even minor injuries from falls in the senior population.
As a part of this effort, researchers hope to enroll 6,000 older adults—age 75 and older—at 10 centers throughout the United States.
Fall prevention tips you can use today
While researchers are working in cooperation with the government to create more effective fall prevention techniques for older adults, there are some steps that you can take today to help protect your elderly loved ones against devastating falls.
- Participate in muscle-strengthening and balance-reinforcing exercises regularly.
- Avoid wearing bifocals or multi-focal glasses while walking.
- Give your home environment a safety run-through, checking for cluttered furniture, loose rugs, cords and other hazards.
- Add handrails to bathrooms, hallways and other areas where falls are likely.
- Enhance lighting options in dim areas, and make sure it's easy to activate lights.
- Get regular vision exams.
- Talk with your physician about medication side-effects, such as dizziness or drowsiness.
- Use a cane or walker if needed for better balance.