Virtual Reality Can Help Stop Old People Falling Over

A trial found that adding a VR component to treadmill training resulted in 42 percent fewer falls.

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Aug 16 2016, 11:05am

Image: Anat Mirelman et al/The Lancet

Virtual reality might currently be best known for its applications in gaming and porn, but some researchers have found a more noble use for it: teaching old people not to fall over.

Researchers led by Anat Mirelman at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center found that using a combination of a treadmill and VR to train older people who were at high risk of falls was effective at keeping them on their feet. The people who had this training had 42 percent fewer falls in the six months following the training than a control group who just had treadmill training.

"Virtual reality enables us to safely train both the motor or gait aspects that are important for fall risk, while also implicitly teaching the participants to improve the cognitive functions that are important for safe ambulation," Mirelman told me in an email. "It also has the advantage of being a game that encourages participation and compliance. Our subjects were always motivated to continue to do better, and avoid more obstacles."

To do the study, which was funded by the European Commission and published in The Lancet, the researchers recruited around 300 people aged 60-90 who had fallen at least twice in the previous six months. About half got six weeks of training on a treadmill, while the other half got training on a treadmill with a "non-immersive" VR component—a screen in front of the treadmill showing a simulated environment with paths and obstacles, with the subject's feet included via a modified Kinect camera.

Here's a video of a participant in the VR group in the first week of training:

And here's the same participant in the last week of training:

Mirelman explained that they didn't want to use immersive VR tech such as a headset because of the risk of cyber-sickness in the older population, and because the whole point was to teach people how to walk safely in reality. "With immersive systems, specifically headsets, it is quite difficult to walk without the feedback of the real world," she said.

While this study was done one-on-one with the participants, the researchers hope that the training could be replicated in clinical practice. "The study showed that this type of training is effective and we think it can be administered in community gyms and rehabilitation clinics," said Mirelman.

She added that they were surprised by the adherence and motivation of the participants, which suggests that people might be willing to take it up. Call it gamification of elderly care.

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