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Medical tools can help seniors prone to falls

Sunday, May 19, 2002

TAMPA, Fla. -- A group of medical detectives has set up shop at an abandoned supermarket in a gutted strip mall.

There, on the desolate site, sits the Patient Safety Center, a complex of laboratories, evaluation rooms and exam rooms crowded into the corner of the grocery store at the crossroads of two bustling Tampa arteries.

Behind a modest glass door entry, doctors, nurses, therapists, researchers, consultants and biomechanical engineers are developing tools to help elderly patients avoid falls and other accidents.

Among their tools is a 200-pound mannequin named Eric that researchers use to test equipment for those who are bedridden or use a wheelchair. With Eric's help, researchers can eliminate the danger of strangulation for patients restrained in bed.

For people over age 65, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths. More than 11 million elderly in the United States fall each year -- one in three senior citizens.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 40 percent of all nursing home admissions are due to falls.

At least 95 percent of hip fractures nationally are caused by falls. Half of the older adults hospitalized for hip fractures never return home or live independently again. And because the population is aging, hip fractures are likely to increase dramatically over the next few decades.

Betty Choyce Sheehan, a 76-year-old Air Force veteran from Lakeland, had two bad falls in 1998 and 1999. She suffered concussions, damaged her knees, hurt her arms, broke her glasses and smashed her face.

The women's clinic at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital referred her to a balance and gait program.

At the Patient Safety Center, which was built by the Veterans Administration, physical therapists use a computer-controlled balance machine that creates an unsteady, high-risk environment to pinpoint what makes some people prone to falls.


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