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Keeping Seniors Safe from Falls, Bugs in the Floor

Quad cane can help prevent falls

Many people are familiar with the commercials about an older person who has fallen and can’t get up. Keeping seniors safe from falls is a critical issue, because the risk of fractures and resulting complications is high. Could bugs in the floor be an answer?

Researchers develop an innovative bug program

At the University of South Carolina (USC), a research team has developed and is testing a program that involves placing sensors (“bugs”) on the floor or baseboard of a room, where they can detect vibrations and movement and transmit the information to a nearby computer, where it is interpreted.

According to the study’s lead researcher, Juan Caicedo, a professor of civil engineering, “The program detects the vibrations (a possible fall), the exact spot of the vibrations and then estimates the force of impact of the object hitting the floor.” The program can identify a range of forces, from the impact of an adult’s weight hitting the floor to the bounce of a small ball.

For family members who are concerned about a parent or other older adult who is at risk of falling, the information from the computer can be transmitted to their cell phone or computer. This feature would allow worried individuals to know if a loved one has suffered a fall.

But the bugs can do even more: they may actually help prevent falls. Caicedo noted that the sensors can also detect gait patterns, and so if a senior begins to shuffle or changes his or her walking patterns, the bugs can identify the vibration changes and send the information to the computer.

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Could the sensors have difficulty differentiating among competing vibrations, causing the bugs to scurry and send mixed signals? To address this concern, the sensors are undergoing strict testing both in Caicedo’s lab and at selected retirement homes in South Carolina.

More than one-third of adults age 65 and older experience a fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among adults age 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of injury death. In 2009, 2.2 million nonfatal fall injuries among seniors were treated in emergency departments. More than 90% of hip fractures are associated with a fall.

As the population ages, the number of falls is expected to rise, and with them the escalating cost associated with falls and fractures. Fall-related health care costs are estimated to reach $32.5 billion in 2020.

Perhaps the only good news about falls is that they are preventable. To that end, a number of guidelines have been developed, including those offered by the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence, the National Council on Aging, and the American Geriatrics Society.

This new program using standard sensors that monitor bridge safety “is an excellent example of taking an existing technology and using it in an innovative way to help people,” noted Dr. Deb Krotish, primary investigator from Environment and Health Group Inc. and who is also with the USC School of Medicine. Bugs in the floor could be a helpful tool in fall prevention for seniors.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
University of South Carolina

Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons