KU Medical Center lab examines how to fall safely
Landon Center on Aging researchers study how to prevent serious injury in older adults by collecting data from people who volunteer to fall in the lab.
Most people try to avoid falling down at all costs. But in a lab at the Landon Center on Aging at the University of Kansas Medical Center, researchers recruit volunteers to fall on demand — just to understand the best ways for older adults to take a tumble without sustaining serious injury.
“To date, we haven’t had a single participant get hurt,” said Jacob Sosnoff, Ph.D., associate dean for research at KU School of Health Professions. “And as far as I know, we are the only group studying the science behind how to fall with participants who actually fall in the lab.”
Falls are a major health concern, especially as we age. Among adults aged 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 14 million older adults report falling each year, and about 37% of those report an injury that requires medical treatment.
“In the real world, you can’t prevent every fall,” Sosnoff said. “We want to show how older adults can prevent serious injury — especially head injuries.” Head injuries can be more common as we age, he said, because as we get older we experience less sensation in our feet and become less aware of when we begin to fall.
While at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Sosnoff published research funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging (part of the National Institutes of Health). “The original research showed that older adults can learn to fall safely,” he explained. “We reduced hip impact forces by upwards of 30%, and head impacts reduced twofold. But our participants were very fit and active older adults, and those aren’t the people who are getting injured from falls.”
When Sosnoff moved to KU Medical Center for a research position, another CDC grant expanded his previous research. “How to measure fall data was not immediately clear,” he said. “We are coming up with techniques in the lab as we teach those at risk to fall safely.”
One technique suspends volunteers who are tethered by a swing over safety mats. With their arms crossed at their chest, they are tilted and released.
One of the volunteers learning fall techniques is Michael Shephard. “I started out taking an exercise class at the Landon Center,” he said. “When I learned about the study, I felt I could make a difference by joining.” He added that being in the lab has helped him feel less afraid of falling and more in control while exercising.
Besides learning how to fall safely, Shephard said he’s learned to avoid fall hazards and is more aware of them on his daily walks. “I use a headlamp to walk in the dark and look down more often to avoid tripping on uneven sidewalks.”
The fall research currently has 30 participants and has openings for more volunteers. Criteria include being over age 65 and having a history of poor balance or a concern of falling. If you are interested in participating, contact Emilia Potts, research coordinator for the mobility and falls lab at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (913) 730-0160.
Seven strategies to minimize injury during a fall
- Increase bone strength with diet and exercise.
- Incorporate exercise into your routine to strengthen muscles.
- When you begin to fall, lower your body into a squat.
- Press your chin to your chest to prevent hitting your head.
- Protect your head with your arms.
- Rotate your body as you hit the ground (roll with the fall).
- Have a post-fall recovery action plan (understand how to get up safely).