For most of us, growing older isn’t much fun. As people age, vision and hearing may start to worsen and memories may begin to fade. Their balance tends to become weak and bones more brittle. When younger folks take a tumble, they may just skin their knee or maybe break a bone. But when seniors slip and fall, the consequences are often more dire.
Every 15 seconds, an older adult is treated in the ER for a fall. While falling is actually not a natural part of aging, these falls often occur if older individuals don’t exercise, are on certain medications, have existing balance or other health issues, or have tripping hazards in their home. Decreasing bone density can make seniors more susceptible to more serious damage; falls can even be fatal, in certain cases. But even when seniors fall and break their hip or their leg, these injuries typically take much longer to heal.
Diane Oyler, program officer for the Health Foundation of Western and Central New York, noted to Utica Observer-Dispatch, “The older you are and the more frail you are, the more likely that the fall could lead to long-term functional decline… Some adults never fully heal and restore their functional health.”
Subsequently, these injuries can actually result in a loss of total independence. If seniors don’t have someone who can care for them at home, they may end up being placed in a nursing community. Nearly 1 million Americans live in some type of senior living community, but that number is expected to double by the year 2030. For the majority of seniors who would prefer to age in place, one slip could completely derail their plans.
Senior slips and falls are particularly prevalent in Upstate New York. Research conducted by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield found that falls are the most common cause of injury among those aged 65 and above in this region. Of those in that age group, one-fourth had fallen within the past year and 40% had sustained an injury as a result. Unsurprisingly, the frequency and severity of these occurrences tend to increase with age.
In 11 New York State counties, including Oneida, the problem is even worse. Seniors in these areas fall more frequently — 796 falls per 1,000 seniors — than the state average, which is 455 falls per every 1,000 seniors. This rate is also twice that of seniors living in the Finger Lakes region, which clocks in at 370 falls per 1,000 seniors.
Dr. Richard Lockwood, vice president and chief medical officer for Excellus’ Central New York region, said in a release that the finding is of “great concern … but we frankly have no explanation for it.”
While experts recommend that leading an active, healthy, and independent lifestyle can prevent falls, there may be another, more high-tech option on the horizon.
New advancements in the virtual technology realm are being used to study muscles with more exact accuracy. In the future, a similar system could be used to diagnose and even improve balance impairments.
Scientific Reports recently published a study that utilized a VR system to simulate a loss of balance while study participants walked on a treadmill. Although the subjects knew they weren’t actually swaying or falling, their muscles and brains would automatically try to correct the imbalance they perceived. By manipulating their sense of balance, the research team was able to zero in on specific muscles used to correct balance issues.
“We were able to identify the muscles that orchestrate balance corrections during walking,” said lead study author Jason R. Franz, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We also learned how individual muscles are highly coordinated in preserving walking balance. These things provide an important roadmap for detecting balance impairments and the risk of future falls.”
Not only does this technology have the potential to help seniors, but it could be used to aid those with neurodegenerative diseases like MS, or as a physical therapy tool.
“We think there’s a big opportunity to use visual perturbations in a VR setting to reveal balance impairments that would not be detected in conventional testing or normal walking,” said Franz. “The key is to challenge balance during walking, to tease out those impairments that exist under the surface.”
While VR has yet to be used in clinical situations in this way, the possibilities for the future look promising. Until then, seniors should focus on getting regular exercise, eating well, and keep their doctors updated about any issues they experience with balance or falling. While senior slips and falls are common, they don’t have to be.