Karen Roberto (from left), Thurmon Lockhart,and Dong Ha are working on a project to stem elderly falls.
Virginia Tech and University of Virginia scientists have taken note that among Americans age 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of injury-related death. Falls also are the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.
In 2007, more than 18,000 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries. In 2009, 2.2 million nonfatal fall injuries among elderly adults were treated in emergency rooms and more than 581,000 of these patients were hospitalized.
Researchers at Tech and UVa are hoping to stem this tide. With a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Smart Health and Wellbeing Program, they are creating a portable fall prediction monitoring system for early detection of fall risks that can provide early diagnosis and treatment before a fall occurs to reduce long-term health effects and injuries, and ultimately, help stave off death.
Users likely would wear the device as a faux piece of jewelry on a piece of clothing or around an ankle. It will measure potentially small declining increments in gait, posture, and mobility of a patient, major indictors that can help point to a future fall, says Thurmon Lockhart, an associate professor with the Virginia Tech Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering<, part of the College of Engineering.
“I believe we could really help some people, that is the reason for this program, helping save lives” says Lockhart, who also is director of the Virginia Tech Locomotion Research Lab, and has worked with dozens of U.S. companies – including delivery giant UPS – in training workers in fall training safety.
Joining 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. Also joining the study is John Lach, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The two universities will share the grant, with $750,000 going to Virginia Tech, and $450,000 to University of Virginia. “Our focus is on preventative measures,” Roberto says. “The idea is to identify with some confidence those older adults most at risk for falling before they actually fall. With this type of information, facilities could implement safety measures and work with those individuals to prevent and reduce fall accidents.”
The federal grant money is a pittance compared to the health care costs associated with falls among the elderly, said Lockhart. In 2005, the latest numbers available from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, direct medical costs of falls totaled more than $19 billion and fatal fall costs $349 million.
With inflation, skyrocketing health care costs and the aging of the baby-boomer generation, these numbers likely are to dramatically increase. An early prototype of the sensor already has been built and tested under a previous National Science Foundation funded project by Lockhart and Lach.
The newer project will develop a monitoring system called “ROOP-Alert” for Remote Observation Operating Platform. It will bridge gait and posture analysis, body sensor networks, low-power radio frequency wireless communication, and gerontology.