| Helmut Reuter |
A SOPHISTICATED new walking frame using advanced electronics could help older people reduce their risk of falling.
Many older people are fearful of falling, and justifiably so. The older they are, the greater their risk of falling and injuring themselves. Experts say someone over 65 has about a 30 per cent chance of falling at least once within a given year.
“The probability increases by 10 per cent for each additional decade of life. That’s a lot,” says Dr Amit Choudhury, Director of the Department of Geriatrics and Early Rehabilitation at North Bremen Hospital in Germany.
Falls – and the broken bones that can result – are especially dangerous in old age. The most dreaded fracture is that of the femoral neck in the hip.
Upper arm fractures near the shoulder, pelvic ring fractures and – particularly in people with osteoporosis – vertebral body fractures are also common. These are often life-altering injuries.
“After a femoral neck fracture, about a quarter of the patients require permanent care,” Choudhury says.
Wheeled walkers equipped with handbrakes on the handlebars generally enable users to get around safely, but not always. Though they are meant to lower the risk of falling, they can sometimes cause a fall. Users who lean forward too far, for example, can tip themselves over.
Ideally, users are instructed by a physiotherapist on proper use of the device. But even then, the lessons are often quickly forgotten and risky postures result.
But now, a three-year research project is hoping to harness digital technology to make wheeled walkers safer. Dubbed ModESt after a German acronym for “rollator module for posture recognition and fall prevention,” it brings together computer specialists, doctors, physiotherapists, a walker manufacturer and an electronics company.
To recognise risky postures, six to eight sensors integrated with software-based algorithms constantly measure the distance between the rollator user’s shoulders, pelvis, thighs and calves.
“This is just the first step,” says project director Serge Autexier, a computer scientist at Bremen-based Cyber-Physical Systems, a department of the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI).
The second step involves feedback signals: the walker lets the user know when his or her posture is wrong and could lead to a fall.
“The rollator has got to communicate. But how? It must be simple and intuitive, and it mustn’t be distracting,” Autexier points out.
A display, he says, would probably demand too much attention. And buzzing or humming sounds wouldn’t work in noisy surroundings or if the user is hard of hearing. The problem is a tricky one, but researchers have until 2019 to figure it out.
Whether and when someone needs a wheeled walker must be determined on a case-by-case basis, Choudhury says. The devices can be helpful for people with osteoarthritis in hip or knee joints, muscle insufficiency or nerve disorders.
For many people, they have become indispensable in boosting mobility, quality of life and, of course, protection against falls.
“Once largely an unloved, bothersome aid, rollators have now become a lifestyle product in many places,” notes Markus Hammer, Sales Manager of Norway-based Topro, a manufacturer of technical aids for the physically challenged and a participant in the research project. (dpa)