July 5, 2011

AUSTRALIA: Sensor to help catch elderly before a fall

SYDNEY, NSW / The Sydney Morning Herald / News / July 5, 2011

Belinda Tasker, National Medical Correspondent

More elderly people could stay living in their own homes longer thanks to a new clip-on device that predicts how likely they are to suffer a fall.

One in three Australians aged over 65 suffers a fall each year, with the medical costs associated with treating them reaching about $850 million.

But a new device developed by scientists at the University of NSW (UNSW) can predict who is most likely to fall and possibly be in need hospital care for injuries such as hip fractures.

The device allows the test to be done at home, at any time, by anyone, without supervision. Photo: tacojim/iStockphoto

Being able to work out who is the most and least likely to fall can help families determine how much assistance an elderly relative might need around the home to prevent a tumble or if they require more constant care.

The device, which clips onto a belt, works as a sensor to measure the performance of someone as they carry out everyday tasks like climbing steps.

The UNSW researchers tested 68 elderly people using the device and more traditional clinical assessment tests.

The results from the device matched those from the clinical tests in 99 per cent of cases, meaning the sensor could be a cost-effective way of elderly people measuring their own risk levels at home rather than relying on special clinics.

"We put the device on their waist and the idea was that they performed a scripted assessment and tests such as standing up and walking three metres and coming back and sitting down again, sitting in a chair and standing up five times and an alternate step test to simulate climbing stairs," lead researcher Dr Stephen Redmond said.

"We found those who had a greater risk of falling tended to perform the tasks with reduced stability.

"In the future, we hope that just by getting them to wear the sensor for a period of time we can unobtrusively estimate their risk of falling by monitoring how they perform activities like walking as they go about their daily lives.

"What we have learned so far tells us this is a very achievable goal."

There are already a range of fall detection devices on the market. While they sound an alarm when someone has fallen, they cannot predict if someone will fall.

Dr Redmond said the research team hoped they would be able to find more funding to carry out more trials of their fall predictor. He said he envisaged the technology developed by the UNSW team would be able to be incorporated into the fall alarms already on the market.

© 2011 AAP
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