Seniors and physical therapists one day may benefit from a computerized treadmill program under development to prevent falls and fall-related injuries in older adults.
Clive Pai, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is developing the program using a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Institute of Aging. It replicates a training device he uses in his laboratory that is too bulky for a typical physical therapy office.
Using a special walkway in his lab, Pai recently studied several independently living adults aged 65 to almost 90 years. Participants weren't told when or how they might fall as they walked, strapped into a safety harness. Suddenly, the footing surface would slide out from under them; the effect was as if they were stepping on a banana peel.
"For the first time, the second time, and maybe the third time, they experienced falling," Pai says. "And then, all of sudden, they stopped falling. They were so quick to adapt."
Pai discovered that the seniors retained what they had learned in his lab for as long as 12 months. They were less likely to fall when they returned to the lab six months to a year later, and in their daily lives they were 50 percent less likely to fall in the year after training than in the year before.
The research team discovered that the tests and training can be safe even for people with reduced bone density, and Pai hopes it will be safe even for those who have osteoporosis.