December 10, 2013
by Kahaliah Richards
Computer game promotes balance to help prevent falls, the main cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries among elderly
BETHESDA, Md., December 10, 2013– According to the National Council on Aging, an older adult is seen in an emergency room for a fall-related injury every 15 seconds. One in three older Americans fall each year, and falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for people aged 65 and older.
Many falls among the elderly are related to bad balance caused, in part, by poor foot health. A special edition of the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association (JAPMA) explores a promising new virtual reality program designed to address these issues by improving balance and stability, helping keeping elderly patients on their feet.
Donna Flenz, a 63-year-old diabetes patient, had become fearful of taking a tumble. Rightfully so—she’s fallen eight times this year. “The worst fall was in the backyard. I broke my clavicle,” she said.
Flenz is one of 29 participants in the first-of-its-kind study at the University of Arizona, where researchers are testing diabetes patients with peripheral neuropathy. The innovative virtual reality program uses wearable sensors that provide interactive visual feedback in real-time.
Luckily, Flenz enjoys this unique type of therapy. “I like beating the computer. It’s a game, but the benefits you reap from it are tremendous,” said Flenz.
Bijan Najafi, PhD, University of Arizona researcher, has seen dramatic improvement among participants. “The exercises are done for 20 minutes, twice per week for four weeks. In that time period, we’ve seen balance improve more than 35 percent, and gait velocity and gait stability improve almost 20 percent,” said Dr. Najafi.
“Since I’ve been in the study, I’m not afraid of doing things,” said Flenz. “It has given me some of the enjoyment of my life back.”
JAPMA’s special issue on falls prevention also addresses some of the critical questions on the correlation between foot problems, footwear, and falls among older adults. The studies included in the special issue demonstrate multifaceted podiatry interventions that reduce the risk of falling, including lower extremity exercise, nonslip socks, special footwear, and surgical foot deformity correction.