If you want to get better at baseball, you practice baseball. So if you want to get better at recovering from a trip, why not practice recovering from a trip?

Kathleen Bieryla

Approximately 4,900 adults over the age of 65 are treated in an emergency room as a result of a fall; and 45 older adults across the country die every day from injuries resulting from a fall. Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Katie Bieryla is hoping to change those statistics by figuring out how to help people stay on their feet.

nterventions such as strength training and aerobic exercise are often used to help older people maintain their balance, but these programs don't always work. Bieryla hypothesizes that the reason might be simple — general exercise programs don't train people in the specific skills they need.

"If you want to get better at baseball, you practice baseball," she says. "So if you want to get better at recovering from a trip, why not practice recovering from a trip?" Bieryla's research is focused on developing task-specific training programs to help patients learn to keep their balance.

Bieryla has designed a moving platform that provides a safe environment in which patients can practice recovering from being thrown off balance, without actually falling down. By repeating these motions during a regular training regimen, most people improve their balance, at least for a while.

The moving platform not only creates small movements that challenge balance skills, but also quantifies each person's response before and after training. "It's similar to the Wii Fit," she says, referring to the popular Nintendo video application that shows a person's movements on a television screen. "The same way the Wii Fit can measure and tell where the body is in relation to something for example the left or right or bending forward or backward, that's what this platform can do, except a lot more precise."

To get another look at how different training programs affect balance, Bieryla uses computer models. By entering a person's dimensions into the model and associating that information with how that individual actually responds on the moving platform, Bieryla can look at the effect of altering different variables. For example, she can see what will happen if a certain muscle group is strengthened. This information can help her understand why strength-training programs alone don't always work, and then decide how to tweak her training program to make it more effective.

With the basic premise established that a fall prevention intervention can teach older adults balance skills, Bieryla looks forward to refining the training program to enhance retention, and to working with different populations, such as Parkinson's or stroke patients, who also suffer from high rates of falls.

Posted Sept. 22, 2009

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