Aging slows your perception of falls
WATERLOO — Seniors take twice as long as young adults to realize they’re falling, and that delay puts them at greater risk of serious injury, according to a new University of Waterloo study.
“The older adult requires twice as much time to perceive the fall,” said Michael Barnett-Cowan, a kinesiology professor and senior author on the study.
“They won’t know until they’re well into the fall.”
Unfortunately, by then it’s often too late to do anything about it.
Barnett-Cowan hopes the findings will help guide the development of wearable fall prevention technology, as well as give health-care providers a tool to better identify people who are at a higher risk of falls.
Falls are the leading cause of death and hospitalization in Canada. Between 20 to 30 per cent of seniors fall each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Falls often cause serious injury and lead to a senior moving into long-term care.
In order to measure a participant’s fall perception, researchers issued a sound at different times relative to a supervised fall. They found the healthy young adults needed the fall to happen about 44 milliseconds before the sound in order for both cues to be perceived as happening simultaneously. Adults over 60 needed about 88 milliseconds.
While that may not sound like much, Barnett-Cowan said that “it’s a huge amount of time in brain time.”
The study also found the time varied, including two seniors who were much slower at perceiving a fall.
“Some might be more at risk than others,” Barnett-Cowan said.
That potentially creates an opportunity to identify those who haven’t yet suffered a fall but are at greater risk, and refer them to preventive care such as rehabilitation.
Barnett-Cowan wants to further test the relationship between reflex and perception in older adults. When the nervous system’s ability to detect a fall and compensate is diminished, the risk of injury or death increases significantly.
“Your actual conscious awareness of it is twice as slow,” he said.
The study appears in the journal Gait & Posture.