VA Annex hopes to prevent falls in veterans
As we age, we’re more likely to fall and, as a result, become injured or even disabled. More than one in three people over age 65 falls each year, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Falls Prevention Week, September 18 to 24, 2022, is a time to raise awareness that falls are preventable. Public-service announcements this month may remind us to secure loose rugs around the house, for instance, or to get enough sleep.
At the same time, this month researchers at Baltimore’s VA Medical Center Annex are launching a pilot study to help veterans over age 65 who have experienced a fall or are at risk of falling.
The study seeks to train veterans to keep their balance despite distractions. Veterans will walk on a treadmill attached to a computer screen, which will present “obstacles” in their path.
“Falls most often occur when walking — and when the person is distracted,” said Susan Conroy, principal investigator of the eight-month-long study.
“We’re looking at how this new virtual-reality system can improve balance and prevent falls in our older veterans. We want to see if this intervention can prevent falls and carry over into real life.”
Two months of in-person visits
Participants will visit the Annex on West Fayette Street twice a week for seven weeks for 45 minutes of “training,” on the treadmill. As they walk in place, they’ll watch a real-time projection of their feet as they walk to the library or the bank.
“While they’re walking, they’re going to encounter obstacles” such as images of puddles, Conroy said. Her team will encourage veterans to “handle these physical challenges while they’re trying to navigate to a destination.”
After the treadmill training is completed, veterans will keep in touch with researchers for another six months via telephone in case they fall.
Like a video game
There are no headsets or goggles involved in this study, Conroy noted. Instead, the images on the screen are “similar to a video game,” she explained.
“It’s a simulated reality of a camera projecting their feet as they walk on a normal treadmill.”
Conroy test-drove the treadmill and enjoyed the experience, she said.
“What’s really fun is we have two environments, and people can be exposed to a city environment and a park environment.”
Parking at the VA Annex is free, and compensation of $100 is given upon completion of the study, known as the Gait Better study.
The hotline for all the VA’s balance-related studies is (410) 605-7179. To find out more about the Gait Better study, call (410) 637-3213.