Sensor developed to predict fall in the elderly

Scientists from the University of Missouri have developed a sensor which would predict falls in elderly people three weeks before they occur, alerting medics to changes in a person’s gait and help prevent a potentially lethal stumble.

Falls are a major cause of broken hips and may reveal undiagnosed health problems such as underlying infections, weaknesses or clashes with medications. One third of pensioners have fallen at least once in the past year. Moreover, elderly patients are thrice as likely to die due to a ground-level fall in comparison to their counterparts aged less than 70.

Now, with the ground-breaking system, falls can be predicted much earlier using sensors placed in the elderly persons’ homes, which would help them stay in their own homes for longer. The system picks up problems early enough so that changes can be made in the medications, or rehabilitation given before a potentially fatal tumble occurs.

The wall-based sensor system measures the walking speed and length of the stride of the elderly people while they move around in their homes. Researchers have found that even small changes in the gait can help predict whether a person is about to fall.

The risk of falling is higher when the walking speed slows.

For instance, a decreases of 5.1cm/s in walking speed of pensioners results in an 86 per cent probability of fall within three weeks, compared to a mere 20 per cent chance if there is no change. Similarly, a decrease of 7.6cm in stride length predicted a 51 per cent chance of a person’s tripping within three weeks.

Professor Marjorie Skubic, the lead researcher, invented the system after her mother-in-law suffered a damaged shoulder from a bad fall. The professor has recently fitted the system in her parents’ home in South Dakota for her mother’s 93rd birthday, hoping it would allow her mother stay well.

“You can make a big difference to how someone is going to age,” she said. “There was this assumed [life] curve that there had to be a decline, but what we are showing is there doesn’t have to be a decline. You can in fact keep people up at a high level until they die.”

She added that if her parents died at their own home after having lived completely independently, then it was a complete win for her. “That is really squaring the life curve,” she said.

The sensor system has already undergone trial with 23 elderly people of an average age of 85. The system helped them remain independent for twice as long as those living in other settings. The trials indicated that those monitored by the technology stayed an average of 4.3 years in their homes compared to 1.8 years for those who were not monitored.


Scientists have launched a project to equip 2,200 elderly people in Boston, USA, with digital sensors on a wristband to enable early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. The high-tech wristbands will measure various health parameters such as sleep, balance, fall risk and heart rate.

The three-year project is expected to reveal subtle physical changes that develop during the early stage of the disease, and provide an alternative test for detecting the illness.

Lead author Rhoda Au, while addressing the participants of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston, said the sensor devices could make the process much simpler.

“It’s really labour-intensive to bring people into the lab for conventional dementia tests,” she said.

Although Alzheimer’s disease currently does not have any treatment, drugs that could stave off dementia are expected to be developed within the next decade, which are likely to work best if the disease is caught in its earliest stages.

Fellow researcher David Knopman, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, said, “The idea of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease is that people destined to develop dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease might undergo subtle changes before they become overtly cognitively impaired. If we knew what to look for, we would disclose who might be at risk.”

More information can be found at: The Telegraph.

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