Aug 1, 2008

Science - To prevent the elderly from falling

BOSTON: Scientists working to help astronauts regain balance after extended flights in zero gravity say they have found a way to use the research to help elderly people avoid catastrophic falls.
An “iShoe” insole contains sensors that read how well a person is balancing. The point is to gather information for doctors and to get people to a specialist — before they fall. Erez Lieberman, a graduate student who developed the technology while working as an intern at NASA, said a damaging fall is preceded by numerous warnings, similar to how high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure point to a coming heart attack.
“You gradually get worse and worse at balancing,” said Lieberman, who studies in a joint Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology health science and technology programme. “If you know the problem is there, you can start addressing the problem,” he said.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates 300,000 people annually suffer hip fractures, which are often caused by falls. An average of 24 per cent of hip-fracture patients aged 50 and over die within a year of the fracture. Many victims who do not die within a year end up being disabled the rest of their lives. “It’s a huge issue,” said Elinor Ginzler of the AARP. “It significantly impairs your ability to stay independent, which is what people want,” she said.
The idea for the iShoe came to Mr. Lieberman while he was working at NASA last summer on a project to help astronauts regain balance after months in zero gravity. The work is part of preparations for long space missions, such as trips to Mars, which require astronauts to perform complicated tasks on the terrain soon after landing.
The balance research seemed to Mr. Lieberman to have obvious earthly applications for the elderly. He and Katharine Forth, a visiting scientist at NASA who also works on the iShoe, had been touched personally by the issue of elderly falls, with each seeing a grandmother’s health rapidly deteriorate after such an accident.
“It was something that has kind of been on my mind in general, and once I started looking at balance it became very clear it would have applications in that direction,” said Mr. Lieberman. NASA tests balance with an expensive device about the size of a phone booth. Mr. Lieberman and Ms. Forth say the iShoe insole, slipped inside any shoe, solves the problem of portability and affordability, since the device would cost about $100.
The iShoe researchers used some of their own work and previous NASA data to determine how pressure is distributed on the foot by people with balance problems, compared to those with good balance.
They then were able to determine certain pressure patterns that show up when people are struggling with balance.
The iShoe, with a half dozen sensors, is not an instant alarm, though it would send out a signal if the wearer actually falls. It is more like a data recorder that the user can bring to a doctor or balance specialist for help if the dangerous pressure patterns are seen.
Mr. Lieberman estimates $1 million is needed for a broad clinical trial, and $3 million to $4 million to bring the insole to market.

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