Virtual Reality Could Help Prevent Older People From Falling

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With 11,000 Baby Boomers per day turning 65, our graying nation is suffering more falls and broken bones than ever before. Sometimes, the falls are fatal.

According to a news release published by University of North Carolina Health Care, Chapel Hill, the institution is conducting research that could make virtual reality balance assessments possible in real-world healthcare settings.

Credit: halfpoint/123RF Stock Photo

A recent paper led by Jason R. Franz, assistant professor in the joint University of North Carolina and North Carolina State Department of Biomedical Engineering, explained rather technically, “Our findings point to specific muscular contributions to orchestrating the kinematic adjustments elicited by balance perturbations, in particular those of posture and lateral foot placement, to preserve whole-body balance.”

In other words, the researchers could observe all the teensy tiny muscles we use in rapid fire succession to avoid falling when we lose our balance. It’s important information to have, they reason, as it could lead to new therapies to help the elderly avoid falling.

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For many elderly people, a fall means “it’s all over.” They may fall and break their hip, lay in bed, never recover, become depressed…a fall truly can mean the end.

In the North Carolina researchers’ work, they observed volunteers on a treadmill who would watch a virtual reality screen of where they were walking. “As each person walked, we added lateral oscillations to the video imagery, so that the visual environment made them feel as if they were swaying back and forth, or falling,” Franz said. “The participants know they aren’t really swaying, but their brains and muscles automatically try to correct their balance anyway.”

Fifteen cameras and various electrodes would observe their every move.

Franz said that because of this exercise, “We were able to identify the muscles that orchestrate balance corrections during walking. 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.”

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So why do elderly people begin to lose their balance as they age? The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill press release offered this very clear explanation:

“Young and healthy adults rely predominantly on the mechanical ‘sensors’ in their feet and legs to give them an accurate sense of body position. So, healthy people usually have no trouble walking in the dark or with their eyes closed.”

This sense fades as we age, however, as well as among people with neurodegenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease. “This leads to a greater reliance on visual cues to maintain balance.”

If clinicians can better understand what mechanical blunders people are making when they lose their balance, physical therapists can help patients correct those errors.

A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.”