To Help Seniors Stop Falling, Scientists Trip Them

Researchers say people can learn how to react better

By Shelley Hazen,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 28, 2014 2:43 PM CDT

(Newser) – When 81-year-old Mary Kaye trips and falls—usually on Chicago's sidewalks—she lands on her face. "It's usually quite disastrous—for my face," she tells the AP. Falls are dangerous for seniors, so physical therapist Clive Pai is testing what sounds like a cruel way to prevent such incidents … he purposely trips his subjects. As part of his $1 million government research study, Kaye was tripped up on a motorized walkway—don't worry, she was strapped to a harness—to subconsciously teach her how not to fall. "For the first time, the second time, and maybe the third time, they experienced falling," Pai explains in this Eureka Alert release. "And then, all of a sudden, they stopped falling. They were so quick to adapt." This "implicit learning," he says, can last for a year and halves seniors' risk of falling.

It costs $30 billion a year to treat injuries stemming from falls, which can start a nose dive in seniors' health. Colleagues say Pai's subconscious learning theory—which needs several more years of study—is promising and could become part of seniors' standard care. To that end, Pai is now testing his "vaccine against falls" with seniors on smaller, computerized treadmills that are designed for doctor's offices, clinics, and physical therapy centers. Which means grandma's yearly trip to the doctor may someday include a walk on such a treadmill, learning how to keep both feet on the ground. (Another novel treatment? Hot cocoa for Alzheimer's.)

Clive Pai, a University of Illinois-Chicago physical therapy professor, left, and physical therapy assistant professor Tanvi Bhatt, right, watch Mary Kaye, 81, during a treadmill balance session.
Clive Pai, a University of Illinois-Chicago physical therapy professor, left, and physical therapy assistant professor Tanvi Bhatt, right, watch Mary Kaye, 81, during a treadmill balance session.   (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
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