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New Research Could Help Prevent Falls among the Elderly

Nursing home negligence lawyers at Pintas & Mullins report on recent research developments concerning how humans maintain balance, coordination and stability while walking and running. Studies are being conducted at the University of Texas at Austin and McGill University in Montreal, among other institutions, which could yield beneficial results to help prevent falls in the elderly.

Among their findings, scientists in Austin have determined that maintaining stability and balance requires complex coordination of neck and head motion, arm movement, foot placement, and torso angle.

For many of us, walking is one of the most natural things we do, like breathing and sleeping. Each step we take, however, is unique, different than the one that came before it and that proceeds it. Stride lengths always vary in width and angle, along with constant, miniscule shifts of weight in the torso. The muscles, of course, must be constantly adjusting to accommodate these variations, and in the elderly particularly, muscles cannot always keep up.

Researchers in Austin placed reflective markers on study participants to help analyze specific movements and shifts in the body while walking, running and jogging. The markers reflected infra-red light recorded on cameras and reconstructed in computers that generated digital images of their movements for analysis.

Texas participants were healthy men and women ranging in age. They found that older participants were more at risk of variations in steps than younger participants, and that younger people could more quickly adapt to changes.

There are three main systems in the human body that help us stay balanced: the visual, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems. The visual system takes in environmental information and transmits it to the brain. The proprioceptive incorporates sensory systems and informs the brain how the body’s parts are oriented. The vestibular, located in the inner ear, focuses primarily on head movement. If any two of these systems are at all impaired, balance and coordination problems begin to manifest.

With age, the vestibular system becomes less sensitive, which causes us to rely more heavily on vision to keep balanced. Vision, however, processes information much slower than the inner-ear mechanism; therefore people in advanced age are do not process coordination-related information as quickly to correct imbalances.

Other research conducted at McGill University is aimed at analyzing how the brain controls our balance. The McGill study examined a specific area of motion-detector neurons deep in the brain that sends alerts when the body moves in unexpected ways, such as when you trip or fall. The neurons trigger reactions in other parts of the brain and spinal cord to compensate for the unexpected movement, helping us to stabilize.

This all happens in a matter of milliseconds. McGill researchers are hoping that this information could one day help doctors, nurses and caregivers better predict elderly patients’ risk of falling, ultimately leading to improvements in rehabilitation and prevention practices. According to the CDC, falls are the leading cause of death and injury among Americans 65 and older. Over two million elders in the country went to the emergency room due to a falling incident in 2010.

A researcher at the Faculty of Human Movement Sciences at VU University in Amsterdam has been mapping the minuscule variations people make between one step to another to see if there is any way to tell if a person is unstable. He stated that increased inconsistencies between steps, which, as stated, is more common in the elderly population, may indicate a higher risk of falls.

The University of Texas at Austin is planning a follow-up study wherein they plan to track the association between the risk of falling and variability in steps. They will place older people on a treadmill and deliberately trip them (they will be secured with a full-body harness to avoid injury). Other studies have found that the most important method to maintain balance is to shorten steps and increase step widths.

Nursing home negligence lawyers at Pintas & Mullins affirm that all nursing homes should be aware and document the risk of falls in residents. Unfortunately, many falls that occur in nursing homes could have been avoided if nurses and caregivers were more adept to residents’ falling risk and prevention practices. If you or someone you love fell while in a nursing home and suffered serious injuries, you may be entitled to significant compensation for medical bills and emotional distress, and should contact a skilled attorney as soon as possible.