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Keeping the Home Fall-Safe

Researcher tries to learn more about why older people are prone to falls

FRIDAY, Dec. 27, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A Virginia Tech researcher is trying to find out why so many elderly people fall so that he can find ways to prevent a serious health threat.

Falls are the leading cause of accidental deaths among Americans over the age of 75 and the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 45 to 75, says the National Safety Council.

The health consequences of falls are well known, but the actual reason why so many elderly people fall is still unclear.

Thurmon Lockhart is an assistant professor of industrial systems engineering, with a background in biomechanics and human motor control. He's trying to learn more about why elderly people are so prone to falls.

For his research, Lockhart is fitting 60 young and old volunteers into a special harness and a network of sensors that test musculoskeletal and neuromuscular changes and biomechanical responses when the volunteers slip and recover.

The volunteers walk back and forth along a platform in the laboratory. Without warning, a slippery solution is poured beneath their feet. They slip and then recover. The harness prevents them from actually falling.

The sensors record the information about the body motions during the slip and recovery, and that information is entered into a computer model.

This is just one aspect of Lockhart's research into falls.

If you're concerned about falls, Lockhart offers some advice on how to prevent falls in and around your home:

  • Use slip-resistant floor coverings such as rough tile and short, dense pile.
  • Create color contrasts between your walls and floors. It's best if your floors are light-colored.
  • Increase lighting and reduce contrasts in lighted areas.
  • Install wall-mounted light fixtures that you can reach while standing on the floor.
  • Install more electrical outlets in order to reduce the need for extension cords.
  • Relocate light switches so that you don't have to walk through darkened areas.
  • Install grab bars in the bathtub/shower and near the toilet.
  • Widen door width to 30 inches to accommodate people with walkers or wheelchairs.
  • Immediately clean up grease, water and other liquids when they spill on the floor. Don't wax your floors.
  • Don't climb or reach to high cabinets or shelves. If you have to get something from a high location, use a sturdy step stool with handrails.
  • Always keep a nightlight on in your bathroom.
  • Bathroom mats should have non-skid backings.
  • Install hand rails on both sides of stairways and extend them a foot beyond the last step at both the top and the bottom.

    More information

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about falls and the elderly.

SOURCE: Virginia Tech, news release, December 2002
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