The Science Behind Elderly Falling, Slipping

Doctors study how the elderly fall in order to teach them how to fall better.

May 13, 2009 — -- For millions of older Americans a slip or fall could result in serious health complications.

"Falls are the number one contributor to deaths in older Americans due to accident," said Mark Grabiner, of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In fact, every 18 seconds, an older adult is in the emergency room because of a fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And for the last two decades Grabiner has tried to make people fall — not to hurt them — but in order to better understand how seniors fall.

He hopes his research will help devise exercise that will prevent elderly falls.

"The way they walk and the way they fall is actually a result of the changes that occur normally as we proceed in chronological age," Grabiner said.

Participants like 62-year-old Kathleen Randolph find value in the research.

"We live in the winter in Chicago, so enough said," she said.

Fighting the Fall

Grabiner's research team at the University of Illinois at Chicago studies women age 62 and older by putting them through a battery of slip and trip tests.

He uses women because statistics show it's the group most at risk for these types of falls.

The study uses high-tech motion sensors and places 22 of them on the women's arms and legs to monitor their movement.

"We are able to see things as quickly as 5 milliseconds, which is way faster than you can ever see with the human eye," said Noah Rosenblatt, of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It's the same technology used in Hollywood films like "Pirates of the Caribbean" to create life-like movement for animation.

With sensors on and safety harnesses locked, the researchers put the women through the paces. The first exercise is the slip test.

Each woman is led back and forth over a clean Plexiglas sheet. Then, while diverting their attention, researchers grease up the sheet behind the unsuspecting women.

In another trip test a small bar pops up in their path. Researchers watch to see if the subjects stumble and walk or fall.

Red lights read the sensors, which transmit a picture of the body's movements to the computer.

"It was really interesting trying to recover myself," said 62-year-old participant Liz Lee.

The data compiled helps researches learn what worked and what didn't to keep the women on their feet and not tumbling to the ground.

And with the findings the doctors hope to train seniors how to fall better, so that they have a diminished chance of injury.