Republish this article
3rd October 2016

Medtech fights idea that falls are just part of growing old

Millie Kenner, my mother, was living in her own apartment and about to celebrate her 80th birthday when she slipped on the bathroom floor and fractured her spine. Unable to reach a phone, she remained there until a neighbor came knocking.

If the story sounds all too familiar, it is. Each year, one in four persons over 65 report a fall, according to health authorities. In the U.S. alone, 800,000 older people each year are hospitalized, most often with broken bones or brain injuries. A former nurse and fiercely independent, Millie would have been fascinated to learn that radio waves and smartphones are the latest medtech aids in the effort to help prevent and detect falls among older people.

The new systems can automatically send texts, alerts or emails to relatives and doctors – and even summon an ambulance. While systems using pendants – and, often, high monthly fees — have been on the market for years, more advanced systems are emerging that don’t require wearables or subscriptions.

An MIT-developed device using radio waves and data analytics can actually “see” through walls, so it works even if the person is in a different room.

Falling is a major global health problem, and is expected to worsen. The over-60 population is growing faster than any other age group. In the U.S. alone, direct medical costs from fall-related injuries such as broken bones and brain injuries exceed $31 billion a year, to say nothing of the impact on the injured and their families. After a fall-related injury, an older person is likely to remain in hospital for the rest of their life.

The problem is severe enough that governments have developed program blueprints to help local communities address the problem with awareness campaigns and advice on reducing the risk of falls. Risk factors include throw rugs, clutter, muscle weakness, arthritis, vitamin D deficiency, vision problems, antidepressants, uneven or cracked sidewalks, poor lighting and a lack of stair railings and bathroom grab bars.

Awareness campaigns can’t reach everyone, and here’s where medical technology fills a gap. This year, University of Missouri researchers reported that falls in the elderly can be predicted up to three weeks in advance.Their experiment, described in the Western Journal of Nursing Research, used sensors and analytics to measure changes in the person’s gait speed and stride

Just knowing that a sensors will register a fall and alert caregivers can boost the confidence of an older person living alone, possibly helping him remain active and independent.

The stakes are high. Countering the stereotype of old people as “frail” and “dependent,” is part of the World Health Organization’s campaign against ageism, which marginalizes and restricts older people from employment and social services.