Many Baby Boomers are enjoying longer lives through healthier lifestyle choices and better treatments for age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and heart disease, but falling is a far-too-common but potentially life-threatening experience for adults over 65. According to the CDC, one in three people over 65 will fall—leading to more than 800,000 hospitalizations for head and hip injuries and nearly 3 million emergency department visits each year in the U.S.
One of the most serious fall injuries is a hip fracture. Recovery is difficult, and many survivors are unable to maintain independence after the fall. And the number of falls resulting in a hip fracture is projected to increase: Each year more than 300,000 adults over 65 are hospitalized for hip fractures, and more than 95% of fractures are caused by falling (usually by falling sideways). Three-quarters of all fractures are in women—death risk from hip fracture for women older than 50 is greater than risk of death from breast, uterine and ovarian cancer combined.
New tech-driven tools aim to prevent falls
Most falls are preventable, however, and don’t need to be an inevitable part of aging. To address this major senior health and caregiving challenge, tech innovators are developing adaptive device solutions using video monitoring, alarm technology, wearable sensors, virtual reality, AI and robotics.
While many of these new innovations are still under development, many show tremendous promise to drastically reduce falls in the years to come.
The Tango Belt
The Tango Belt and its technology hopes to become the standard of care in hip fracture prevention in the near future. An inflatable belt worn around a user’s waist, the device is designed to prevent injuries related to falls.
“The device has been in development for two decades,” said Wamis Singhatat, CEO, of Tango Belt maker ActiveProtective Technologies. “We used improved technologies to refine the design, and the result is a comfortable smart belt that’s easy to wear all day—some users even sleep with their Tango Belt.”
Currently in clinical trials, the rechargeable belt uses 3D sensors to determine out-of-control motions that don’t exist in balanced human movements. The belt can accurately detect the kind of motions that could lead to a hip fracture versus motions related to normal activities of daily living. Falls occur in less than 300 milliseconds, but sensors detect the difference and trigger inflation in under 200 milliseconds. This reduces ground impact forces at the hips before they hit the ground.
The belt connects to Wi-Fi, sending digital alerts to caregivers for fall notification, and connects to a proprietary app that tracks belt usage and wear. While the device is operational off-network, the alert functionality, wear data and software updates require Wi-Fi connectivity.
Tango Belt clinical trials are expected to be completed mid-2023, when the company will file with the FDA for market authorization, and pursue opportunities for Medicare and third-party coverage. Following FDA authorization, the device will require a prescription by a licensed medical professional.
Canes are an often-used simple adaptive devices designed to assist older adults with mobility. But Ahmad Alghazi, CEO of CAN Go, reimagined the humble tool by integrating sensors, GPS, activity tracking, an LED flashlight and cellular data for emergency phone calls.
CAN Go caters to three separate groups: Those who worry about falling, those with chronic problems related to mobility (like arthritis), and others who need walking aids to recover after a stroke or a hip replacement surgery. The cane was developed in collaboration with Don Norman, a former Apple VP who spearheaded the field of user-friendly design.
By taking a fresh look at traditional adaptive products, tech innovators are assessing current caregiver and physician shortages and engineering product features that can replace an in-person doctor visit. Measuring gait speed is one example of the CAN Go’s functionality: Normally assessed in clinical settings, the gait metric is used to establish a mobility baseline and predicts how likely an older adult is to fall. CAN Go’s sensors gather this data simply by using the cane. The function may be useful as a tool to predict dementia: Scientists recently reported that combining metrics for declining gait speed and worsening performance on memory tests best predicted risk of future dementia onset.
Access to the technological features of the cane is located at various points on the cane’s exterior. The design team created three separate buttons, each with a clearly defined purpose: one to make a call, another to turn on a flashlight, and a third that alternates between metrics, which appear on a display screen.
”A cane, however smart, can never replace human interaction,” said Alghazi, “but its ability to track certain aspects of health make it a helpful tool in a caregiver’s toolbox.”
The projected cost is $399, and the cane can be reserved now on the company website.
Palarum’s PUP (Patient is UP) Smart Socks
While many falls occur at home, 700,000 to 1 million people fall each year while in U.S. hospitals, according to a recent study. This often triggers a downward health spiral from resulting fractures, lacerations or internal bleeding. Research shows close to one-third of these falls can be prevented by evaluating a patient’s underlying risk factors and optimizing the hospital’s physical design and environment.
Palarum’s PUP (Patient Is UP) hopes to reduce these numbers through their sensor-wired socks.
The patented “smart socks” and corresponding technology document and notify caregivers and medical personnel when a patient is out of bed and unattended. The socks issue real-time alarms to notify nearby nurses that a fall-risk patient is out of bed, standing or attempting to walk unassisted.
“The product and research address a huge problem since falls in the hospital are very common and not only hurt, but literally kill, patients every year,” said Catherine Sarkisian, a geriatrician and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But it’s too early to draw any conclusions about what role these socks may play in preventing falls.“
Falls by the numbers
- One out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or a head injury.
- Each year, 3 million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries.
- More than 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized because of a fall injury, most often because of a head injury or hip fracture.
- Each year at least 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures.
- More than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling, usually by falling sideways.
- Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries.
- In 2015, the total medical costs for falls totaled more than $50 billion. Medicare and Medicaid shouldered 75% of these costs.