Fall Forecasting: Can Falls Be Predicted Before They Happen? 

Nearly 20,000 people die from unintentional falls every year. Every 11 seconds, an older adult in the US is seen at an emergency department for a fall-related injury, and one out of five falls causes a serious injury such as a broken bone or a head injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Medical alert bracelets, pendants, and apps on smartwatches have been available for many years and have proven to be effective to detect when a person has fallen. This technology automatically notifies friends and/or 911 that a fall has occurred, often without the need to press a medical alert button.  

Fall detection is beneficial because it can get help to someone more quickly in an emergency. However, fall detection does nothing to prevent falls or injuries from happening. What if there was a way to predict a fall before it happens? Now there is, and it is called “fall forecasting” technology! 

Non-Wearable Sensors Can Predict Falls Before They Happen 

Even the healthiest seniors are at risk of taking a fall, but monitoring their movements can impact heavily on their independence. Over more than 10 years, two University of Missouri researchers have developed technology to help people age in place safely and independently. These researchers from the Sinclair School of Nursing and the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri have developed sensors that can measure in-home gait speed and stride length and can use this information to predict likely falls. The system monitors seniors in their homes, watching out for signs that a fall might be imminent, and alerting caregivers. This is instrumental in alerting health providers to detect changes and intervene before a fall occurs within a three-week period, thus possibly preventing falls from happening. 

How Does It Work? 

According to the team at the University of Missouri, their research and fall forecasting technology showed that when a senior’s stride length shortens, there is a 50.6 percent chance of taking a tumble in the weeks that followed, and when gait speed slows by about two inches per second, their probability of having a fall within three weeks is around 86.3 percent.  

Testing took place at a Missouri retirement village. Once the fall forecasting system registered irregular motion, it was able to take a picture and email caregiving staff with an alert. That alert could be used to warn a fall is more likely, or to catch early signs of functional decline that might be setting in.  

“Aging should not mean that an adult suddenly loses his or her independence,” says Marilyn Rantz, Curators’ Professor Emerita of Nursing. “However, for many older adults the risk of falling impacts how long seniors can remain independent. Being able to predict that a person is at risk of falling will allow caretakers to intervene with the necessary care to help seniors remain independent as long as possible.”  

By integrating care coordination and sensor technology, this new fall forecasting technology has been found to allow residents to live independently for an average of four years compared to the national average of 22 months. The result of this study — “Using Embedded Sensors in Independent Living to Predict Gait Changes and Falls” —was recently published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research. This new fall forecasting technology is already in use at more than a dozen senior living facilities.   

The study has also helped prompt other fall detection technology, including the ZIBRIO Stability Home scale. This scale measures balance and predicts fall risk in a simple 60-second test, and it is something seniors can easily use at home.  

How the Stability Home Scale Works 

To use the Stability Home Scale, you just need to stand on it, as still as you can, with your eyes open, for one minute. During this minute-long balance test, the scale measures any small sway movements that your body makes. The scale’s algorithm assesses your body’s pattern of stability, and gives a fall risk score from 1 to 10. Low scores of 1-3 indicate that you are at a high fall risk. People who score lowest (1-3) are three times more likely to fall in the next 12 months compared with people who score highest (7-10). ZIBRIO offers a free Balance Coach app that gives users a comprehensive picture of their balance and personalized recommendations they can share. 

Fall Forecasting Is Something Seniors Can Do to Reduce the Chance of a Fall Before It Happens 

There are many things that can increase your risk of falling, such as muscle weakness, sleep deprivation, dehydration, poor nutrition, and medications. Fall forecasting is a different approach to fall detection. Instead of sending an alert to a family member after a devastating fall has already occurred, it allows family members to anticipate the likelihood of a fall up to 12 months ahead of time, giving you plenty of time to make lifestyle changes to hopefully prevent falls from happening, or at least to reduce their frequency. 

Once you know you are at risk of falling, you can speak with your doctors, other health care practitioners, and aging-in-place professionals about which course of action is right for you to help reduce your fall risk. For everyone at risk, removing physical obstacles in the home such as clutter and loose throw rugs is helpful. Also important is installing safety rails and hand grips in bathtubs and showers, or even retrofitting bathtubs to be able to walk straight in without having to climb over. Physical therapy is helpful for many people to improve strength and balance. Getting enough sleep and staying well hydrated are also important goals, not just for fall safety but for general health and well-being. 

Note: We don’t ever promote products; we just provide information about what is available. Be sure to check with your doctor and do your own research on the technology we describe.  

What if you are at risk for falls? 

If you are at risk for a fall, how can you make it less likely that you will be seriously injured? The good news is that there are simple things you can do to lessen your risk of injury. The National Council on Aging recommends these steps to reduce your risk of falling. 

  • Find a good balance and exercise program: Exercises that improve your strength, balance, and flexibility lower your chances of falling. Exercise can also increase your confidence and improve your mental health. Ask your doctor if you need suggestions about which exercises would be a good fit for you.  
  • Regularly review your medications with your doctor: Medications that are meant to improve your health may have side effects that cause dizziness or balance issues. This includes prescription medications, as well as some vitamins, supplements, and sleep aids. Talk with your doctor about how these interact. Only take medications and supplements as prescribed. 
  • Get your vision and hearing checked every year and update your eyeglasses: Being able to see and walk comfortably can prevent falls. Visit the eye doctor and have your eyeglass prescription checked at least once a year. 
  • Keep your home safe and remove fall hazards: Give yourself a home safety checkup, looking to remove tripping hazards and improve lighting and safety in bathrooms.  
  • Fall prevention is a team effort: Family and friends can provide extra hands or another set of eyes to check and rid your home of fall hazards. They can also modify family outings to ensure that seniors can safely continue doing things they enjoy, while taking precautions to prevent falls. 

Undetected falls can have harmful effects and sometimes even be fatal. Being aware of your risk of falling, and being able to access help if you or a loved one falls, can be crucial to remaining independent and aging safely.   

When Taking Preventative Measures Isn’t Enough  

When taking preventative measures for fall detection isn’t enough to continue aging in place, assisted living or nursing home care may be necessary. However, nursing homes in Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland can cost as much as $150,000 per year or more, a catastrophic amount that can quickly lead to financial ruin.  

It is always wise to plan ahead for the very likely possibility that you will need long-term care. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting assets from having to be “spent down” in connection with getting nursing home level care (either at home or in a nursing home), while also helping ensure that you get the best possible care if you do end up needing nursing level care.   

If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past three to five years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared! Among other services, we offer peace of mind through our four levels of lifetime protection planning:       

Level 1 — Incapacity Planning is about protecting your assets from lifetime probate.       

Level 2 — Revocable Living Trust Estate Planning is about protecting your assets from lifetime probate and after-death probate.       

Level 3 — Living Trust Plus® Asset Protection Planning provides protection from probate, lawsuits, home care, and assisted living expenses by allowing access to Veterans Aid and Attendance benefits, and nursing home expenses by allowing access to Medicaid.   

Level 4 – Life Care Planning, Medicaid Asset Protection, and Veterans Asset Protection provides comprehensive planning and filing services, often at times of crisis, though this type of planning can be done anytime someone is beyond the first step of the Elder Care Continuum aka Aging Continuum.        

Please contact us whenever you are ready to ensure that you have the appropriate level of planning:  

Northern Virginia Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888              
Fredericksburg, VA Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435              
Rockville, MD Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041              
Annapolis, MD Elder Law Attorney: 410-216-0703    

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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