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Senior falls are a major U.S. health concern. Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among people 65 and older. We recently wrote about a competition backed by the AARP and United Healthcare to discover solutions to adult falls. We also wrote about a smart belt that detects falls and deploys airbags.

According to a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, standard clinical techniques do not diagnose balance impairments adequately. Working with virtual reality systems, the group has found a way to detect muscular problems with balance early enough to intervene before a greater risk of falling develops. The research team had elderly subjects walk on a treadmill. A large curved screen in front of the walkers ran a video of a moving hallway. The group positioned 14 cameras around the subject to record positions of 30 balance-related specific muscle area markers on the legs, back, and pelvis. As the subjects walked, the researchers added visual cues called perturbations that gave the effect of falling or swaying. Healthy people can maintain balance unconsciously while they walk. That capability diminishes with neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis. By observing elderly people whose muscles didn’t automatically compensate for the video shifts, the researchers found the treadmill VR setup effective in detecting previously undiagnosed balance impairments.

Early detection often provides the greatest chance of curing or minimizing the deleterious effects of many diseases and physical conditions. If you’re 65+ or getting close, don’t be surprised if the next time you go in for an annual physical you’re asked to walk on a treadmill for a few minutes.