CHICAGO (AP) — Researchers are tripping seniors on purpose, and it's not some kind of warped practical joke.
The experiment is among techniques being studied to prevent falls, the leading cause of injury in older adults. Falls in the elderly cost $30 billion yearly to treat and can send them spiraling into poor health and disability.
Conventional efforts to prevent falls include exercises to boost strength and balance, but researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago are trying a completely different approach.
It's based on promising, preliminary results with a lab-built walkway that causes people to unexpectedly trip, as if stepping on a banana peel.
Now the same scientists are testing a similar approach with computerized treadmills. If it works, they envision specially designed treadmills in doctors' offices, clinics and physical therapy centers for training people how to avoid falling.
Clive Pai, a physical therapy professor leading the research, calls the method a potential "vaccine against falls."
Standard fall prevention techniques aim to improve physical condition by strengthening certain muscles and improving range of motion. And they may require dozens of sessions to be effective, Pai said. His research is focusing on building subconscious learning, and evidence so far shows it can happen surprisingly fast.
Pai has a $1 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging to study and develop the treadmill system, and plans to enroll 300 participants within the next five years.
Older people are at risk for falls for many reasons, including age-related muscle weakness, vision problems and medication issues including side effects and improper doses.
The National Institute of Health announced in June that it is helping sponsor a $30 million study to test mostly conventional prevention techniques that can be tailored to older adults' individual risks and used in community settings. The government aims to enroll 6,000 adults aged 75 and up at 10 centers nationwide.
Pai's treadmill technique will likely need several years of study to prove whether it works. But Dr. Basil Eldadah of the National Institute on Aging said Pai's research is potentially very promising and the training technique might someday be incorporated into standard clinical care.
Meantime, there are steps older adults can take to reduce their risks for falling. Some from the National Institute on Aging and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
—Exercise, including walking and stretching to improve muscle strength and balance.
—Have the doctor review all medications to check for side effects, doses or drug interactions that could cause dizziness or drowsiness.
—Get yearly vision exams to make sure eyes are healthy and glasses are the proper strength.
—Reduce risks at home including clutter and poor lighting; and install handrails in tubs and showers.
—Limit intake of alcohol, which can affect balance.
—Stand up slowly: Rising too quickly can sometimes result in a sudden drop in blood pressure, causing dizziness.
—Use a cane or walker if needed for steadiness.