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How to keep from falling head over heels

3:06 PM  Feb 8th, 2013
by Audrey Starr

Watch out, Charlie Chaplin — the researchers in the School of Engineering’s Wellness and Safety Lab have put you, and your ubiquitous banana peel, on notice. With more than 2.3 million Americans heading to the emergency room each year for fall-related injuries, they are identifying ways to prevent falls, assess fall risk and mitigate related injuries.

“We’re humanists at heart — and that’s the beauty of engineering,” said assistant professor Kim Bigelow, the lab’s director. “The field is so broad, you can easily find a connection between the science and your passion. For me, it was finding ways to help people and improve their quality of life.”

You won’t find any slapstick shenanigans here: She and her team of student research assistants — including three National Science Foundation fellows — keep an even keel with the study of balance, a key factor in fall prevention.

1. Be active. “You don’t have to run a marathon. Make an extra lap around the grocery store, go outside and garden, take a ballroom dancing class. Just get moving,” Bigelow says. Tight-rope walking lessons optional.

2. Stay out of the medicine cabinet. Taking more than four medications — including vitamins and over-the-counter drugs — increases the chance of interactions and side effects, both of which can cause dizziness, explains graduate student Senia Smoot (who is researching how common physical therapies used to treat autistic children affect their balance). Have your doctor or pharmacist review all your medications; they can determine if interactions are likely or suggest alternatives.

3. Keep an eye out. Balance is heavily dependent on your sight and peripheral perception, so schedule regular exams and address abnormalities, like cataracts or blurred sight, as soon as possible.

4. Get new kicks. Thin-soled shoes without extra padding allow you the most sensation when touching the ground, which increases your balance. Using caution when transitioning between surfaces, such as carpet to tile, also matters, says graduate student Renee Beach, whose research focuses on novel compliant flooring, which is designed to absorb up to 50 percent of your energy in a fall. “I want to know if the material actually causes people to fall more often, or if it performs like a normal floor that then lessens injuries if a fall occurs.”

5. Reach out and touch something. Even placing a single fingertip (called a “light touch”) on a nearby surface, such as a table, wall or cane, can stabilize you. And watch out for peeled fruit — just in case.

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