Watch the walk and prevent a fall

For older people, fall is a byproduct of other health problems

Watch the walk and prevent a fall


More than one-third of people ages 65 or older fall each year. About one fall in 10 results in a serious injury, like a hip fracture. Roughly 20 percent of older people who suffer a hip fracture die within a year. For years, a small group of geriatric experts have studied falls and suggested preventive programs. Most of the work has relied on visits to doctors and self-reported surveys of volunteers.

But now, researchers are beginning to apply the digital tools of low-cost wireless sensors in carpets, clothing and rooms to monitor an older person’s walking and activity. The continuous measurement and greater precision afforded by simple computing devices, researchers say, promise to deliver new insights on risk factors and tailored prevention measures.

For an older person, a fall is often a byproduct of some other health problem:
cardiovascular weakness, changes in medication, the beginnings of dementia, gradual muscle degeneration. Motion analysis aided by inexpensive sensors and computing, researchers say, may well become a new “vital sign,” like a blood pressure reading, that can yield all sorts of clues about health.

Fall prevention also promises to be part of an emerging — and potentially large — worldwide industry of helping older people live independently in their homes longer. The European Union, for example, has committed 1 billion euros, or nearly $1.5 billion, to study and finance technologies and services for the aged. Big corporations, including Intel and General Electric, are investing in the field.

Earlier detection is the goal of an at-home sensor and data study being conducted by the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology, whose sponsors include the Oregon Health and Science University and Intel.

Activity patterns from the data, said Dr Kaye, director of the aging and technology center, can help identify ways to prevent falls. The motion sensors may show that a person with congestive heart failure, for example, is getting up from bed at night to go to the bathroom.

If the heart problem is under control, Kaye said, it may well be a good idea to reduce the dose of the person’s diuretic, trading a little bit of ankle swelling for a good night’s sleep.
Dorothy Martin, 81, and her husband Philip, 83, joined the study two years ago. They live in a two-bedroom apartment in a retirement community in Lake Oswego and as part of the study they fill out weekly self-assessments of their activities and health.

Once a year, they undergo detailed physical and cognitive evaluations. They say the sensor monitoring is unobtrusive because the sensors track only motion, not what they are doing.

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