Senior Fall Prevention Technology Finds its Sole Purpose—In Shoes

Recognizing the hazardous impacts falls have on the elderly, a group of researchers are developing a new technology that addresses fall prevention at its source: seniors’ feet, according to a recent study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Researchers from a range of geriatric care backgrounds suggest that vibrating insoles may provide considerable assistance in improving the gait of seniors, helping them regain lost sensations caused by aging and diseases such as stroke and diabetes, and thus potentially reducing the risk of falls.

Those involved in the experiment include professionals from a variety of practices and specialties in geriatric care, including scientists from the Institute for Aging Research (IFAR) at Hebrew Senior Life, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, along with Merck Sharpe and Dohme Consumer Care, Inc.

The study is based on the concept of stochastic resonance, a phenomenon where a signal that is normally too weak to be detected by a sensor can be boosted by adding white noise to the signal, which contains a wide spectrum of frequencies. It is also largely based on cutaneous sensation, or feelings of or relating to the skin.

Previous touch-sensation psychophysical studies have shown that the ability of healthy young subjects to detect weak mechanical stimuli to the skin could be significantly enhanced by introducing a particular level of mechanical or electrical noise.

Dr. Lewis Lipsitz, IFAR director and the study’s lead author, and his team have extended the research to work with elderly individuals with age-related impairments in cutaneous sensation and to patients with sensory deficits caused by stroke or diabetes.

In doing so, they embedded a thin “piezoelectric actuators” within the arch of commercially-available urethane foam insoles, according to a report from Gizmag. A rechargeable battery and a circuit were also placed in the tongue of each shoe, which sent an electrical signal to the actuators, converting it into mechanical movement.

When testing this experiment, a group of 12 volunteers aged 65 to 90 were reported to have shown significant improvements in the reductions of sway, gait variability and the speed at which they could move between standing and sitting positions, as well as other mobility movements.

“These novel findings suggest that age- and disease-related sensory loss may be reversible by exploiting stochastic resonance-type effects,” wrote the researchers in their report. “These findings are potentially important, insofar as impaired sensation leads not only to serious secondary medical complications, but also to impaired dexterity and coordination.”

Researchers concluded their report with the suggestion that it may be possible to build a special shoe insert with a “minishaker” that can vibrate randomly, or develop wearable glove or stocking electrodes that continuously apply noise during specific activities or throughout the day.

“We hope our study will stimulate collaborations between clinicians and biomedical engineers to develop new methods to improve sensation and to reduce the morbidity associated with sensory loss in elderly and disabled people,” Lipsitz and his team wrote.

View the study.

Written by Jason Oliva

Jason Oliva

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