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Monitors to Prevent Elderly Falls Before They Happen

Hands with arthritis (NIH)

(National Institutes of Health)

Grants from the National Science Foundation’s Smart Health and Wellbeing Program are funding development of a sensor-based system to detect the risks of falls by frail elderly people. One of the grants, to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, will involve collaboration between the school’s engineering and gerontology departments; a smaller grant will fund similar engineering work at University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that among Americans age 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of injury-related death. Falls are also the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma. In 2009, says CDC, 2.2 million nonfatal fall injuries among older adults were treated in hospital emergency rooms, with more than 581,000 of these patients requiring hospitalization.

Virginia Tech engineering professor Thurmon Lockhart says the proposed monitor would probably be worn like jewelry on clothing or around one’s ankle. It would measure indicators of an individual’s future fall, such as small declining increments in gait, posture, and mobility.

Lockhart is also director of the Locomotion Research Lab at Virginia Tech that has worked with UPS and other U.S. companies on training workers in fall safety. With Lockhart on the research project from Virginia Tech are Dong Ha, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Karen Roberto, professor of human development and director of the Center for Gerontology and the Institute for Society Culture and Environment.

Lockhart and John Lach, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Virginia and also a collaborator on the project, have built an early version of the sensor under a separate NSF grant. The new study will enhance and miniaturize the sensor, as well as develop a monitoring system called ROOP-Alert — for Remote Observation Operating Platform — to process data from the sensor.

The current version of the sensor is about the size of an iPod Mini. In the proposed system, the sensor would send data wirelessly to the ROOP-Alert system at a monitoring site, such as a nurses’ station at a nursing home or retirement center, to help recognize a resident’s mobility decrements and related falls risk, before they fall. Roberto says a group of residents at a Radford, Virginia nursing home have agreed to test the devices.

Read more: Robot Being Developed to Aid in Care of Elderly

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