“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” Remember that catchphrase of the late 1980s and early 1990s, based on the television commercial for LifeCall? Well, the Mrs. Fletcher of yesterday would be amazed by the wearable devices of today – they might even be able to prevent her fall in the first place!
According to the CDC, falls are a leading cause of injury and death in older Americans. More than 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, the number of fall-related injuries and deaths are on the rise. In response to their fear of falling, older adults limit their activities which result in the physical decline, depression, isolation, and feelings of helplessness. This, in turn, increases health care utilization and cost and decreases the quality of life for older adults. Perhaps wearable devices could be used to reduce this fear and prevent falls.
This brings us back to Mrs. Fletcher and her LifeCall pendant. Unfortunately, the pendant was not a fall prevention strategy, it was a system that allowed users to request help after a fall. Times have changed since the LifeCall commercials aired in the late 1980s. Wearable devices hold great promise to prevent falls in older Americans. My 86 year old grandmother is living alone 700 miles from her family. I would find great comfort in knowing that she could put on a sensor that would alert her to an impending fall. Without getting into the biomedical engineering details of this technology, these wearable sensors capture motion characteristics which are used to estimate the likelihood of a fall and alert the user in real time. Carnegie Mellon engineers have developed fall-prevention sensors to monitor gait and send mobile alerts not only to nurses and caregivers but also to the individual if their gait changes threateningly. The goal of these sensors is to anticipate and prevent falls. The technology is programmed to immediately notify someone if individual experience a sudden fall. These wearable sensors integrate fall detection and fall prevention technologies which the LifeCall system lacked.
The United States is facing an unprecedented demographic transition due to the aging of the baby boom generation (those born from 1946 through 1964) which is further magnified by increasing life expectancy. As of November 2016, the United States has reached a new population milestone – a population of over 50 million seniors for the first time in history. This population increase will undoubtedly result in more Medicare beneficiaries and higher Medicare spending while fewer citizens are paying into the system. This changing population dynamic presents a myriad of challenges including the devastating impact of falls.
Fall prevention is one of the many benefits of wearable sensors. These devices also collect data that can be used by healthcare providers to inform medication adjustments, signal that an office visit is needed, suggest disease progression, etc. The usefulness of this data is not only limited to healthcare providers. Dashboards could be monitored by aging adults and their caregivers. I know I would be interested in monitoring my grandmother’s dashboard. While wearables are not the only solution to prevent falls, they are one tool to be included in a multifactorial fall prevention program. My hope is that the continued development of wearable sensors will minimize the Medicare costs associated with falls while increasing the quality of the life of older Americans.