FallsLab aims to keep Canadians upright

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Despite researchers’ best efforts, no one has ever fallen in FallsLab. The newest lab in Toronto Rehab’s iDAPT Centre safely simulates falls so scientists can determine how to prevent them. A sophisticated robotic safety harness protects people from hitting the ground when they lose their balance.

The FallsLab research may help prevent some of the 180,000 fall-related injuries Canadians aged 65 and over suffer every year.

A Public Health Agency of Canada report documents that falls account for 85 per cent of seniors’ injury-related hospitalizations. Forty per cent of these falls result in hip fractures that lead to death for one in five seniors a year. These injuries are costly – Canadians spend approximately $2 billion annually on direct health care costs alone. Preventing a small percentage of falls could help seniors maintain their independence, enjoy a better quality of life and also ease the strain on the health care system.

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“Toronto Rehab is attacking this problem from two directions,” says Dr. Geoff Fernie, institute director, Toronto Rehab. “We’re helping train people who’ve recovered from a brain trauma and other injuries to regain their ability to resist falling. We’re also making changes to the environment to reduce the risk of falling. These changes include safer building code standards for stairs and better non-slip footwear for winter.”

FallsLab is the largest of its kind in the world. Force plates that measure the weight of the person moving or standing on them are attached together to form a moving platform. Researchers use infrared cameras and reflective sensors to watch how subjects move and react as the platform shifts. The measurements make it possible to analyze falls and test the effectiveness of interventions such as training or safety equipment.

Other research at FallsLab is looking at how to best treat injuries affecting mobility.

Dr. Adam Katchky, an orthopaedic surgery resident at the University of Toronto, was first in line when the lab opened. He is researching two types of knee replacement devices to see which one provides patients with the best balance after surgery.

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“Older platforms were too slow to make people fall, and too small to allow subjects to walk naturally. This platform creates motions jarring enough to simulate the types of falls that cause serious injuries. My research wouldn’t be possible without it,” said Katchky.

“It feels like being on the subway when it stops suddenly,” says research participant Patrick Keenan. “Only the direction and the intensity changes each time, making the movement impossible to anticipate. Sometimes it’s really startling.”

 

“FallsLab fits perfectly with iDAPT’s mission: keeping people safe and independent in their home as they age,” says Fernie. “People experience more slips and trips as they get older. Recovering becomes harder, and injuries worse. This research will advance falls prevention and treatment strategies that help people maintain their independence, a primary factor in quality of life.”