Can virtual reality prevent the no. 1 cause of injury death in seniors?

Can virtual reality prevent the no. 1 cause of injury death in seniors?

Life is a balancing act, but as we age, our physical balance can degenerate and cause serious issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control, falls are the leading cause of injury and injury death among older Americans. They account for an estimated $31 billion in Medicare costs annually and lead to the deaths of more than 27,000 older adults each year.

Looking to combat these figures, Jason Franz and his research team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Caroline State University have found evidence that virtual reality (VR) can help detect balance deficits early on and prevent falls.

For the study, Franz and company had subjects walk on a treadmill in front of a large, curved screen depicting a moving hallway. The images on the screen changed to give a sense of swaying or falling. Electrodes recorded how the body responded to these changes.

“We were able to identify the muscles that orchestrate balance corrections during walking,” Franz said in a news release. “We also learned how individual muscles are highly coordinated in preserving walking balance. These things provide an important road map for detecting balance impairments and the risk of future falls.”

One application of the study could be to use similar technology in a clinical setting to diagnose balance impairments or even to train people to improve their balance by walking.

“We think there’s a big opportunity to use visual perturbations in a VR setting to reveal balance impairments that would not be detected in conventional testing or normal walking,” Franz said. “The key is to challenge balance during walking, to tease out those impairments that exist under the surface.”

The team’s work could change the lives of thousands of our rapidly growing senior population.

“A fall, especially one with injury and in an elderly person, can be devastating,” says Theresa Bailey, nurse manager at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill. “It often has life-altering effects and can lead to a shortened life span. Any intervention available to help keep patients and individuals safe and free from fall can be of benefit both as an inpatient or outpatient service.”

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About the Author

Lynn Hutley
Lynn Hutley

Lynn Hutley, health enews contributor, is coordinator of public affairs and marketing at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center and Advocate Eureka Hospital in central Illinois. Having grown up in a family-owned drug store, it is no surprise that Lynn has spent almost 18 years working in the health care industry. She has a degree in human resources management from Illinois State University and is always ready to tackle Trivia Night.