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Fall perception changes with age

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Older people need twice as long as young people to realise they are falling, and this puts them at increased risk for serious injury, according to a Canadian study.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo measured fall perception by presenting study participants with a sound at different times relative to a supervised fall. They found that young adults required the fall to happen about 44 milliseconds before the sound in order for both cues to be perceived as occurring simultaneously. But adults over 60 years old required fall onset to occur about 88 milliseconds before the sound.

“When the nervous system’s ability to detect a fall and compensate with protective reflexes diminishes, the risk of injury or death increases significantly,” explained Michael Barnett-Cowan, a kinesiology professor at Waterloo and senior author of the study.

“This lag means that by the time older adults realise they are falling, it’s often too late for for them to consciously do anything about it.”

The researchers hope their findings will help shape the development of wearable fall prevention technology and allow clinicians to more accurately identify at-risk individuals.

“Given that falls are often the catalyst for a transition to long-term care, these findings highlight both the importance of adequate assessment for older adults and the need to expedite new prevention technology,” Barnett-Cowan added.

The study has been published in the journal Gait & Posture.

According to the NHS, older people are more vulnerable and likely to fall because they may have balance problems and muscle weakness; poor vision; or a long-term health condition, such as heart disease, dementia or low blood pressure (hypotension), which can lead to dizziness and a brief loss of consciousness.

Around one in three adults over 65 who live at home will have at least one fall a year, and about half of these people will have more frequent falls.

While most falls don’t result in serious injury, there is a risk that a fall could lead to broken bones, particularly in those with osteoporosis. It can also cause the person to lose confidence, become withdrawn and feel as if they have lost their independence.