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Patrick Foo, Chris Nicolay and Jason Wingert hope their research will lead to fewer falls in older adults.

New research may lead to fewer falls in older adults

By Katie Rozycki ’07

Falls are the leading cause of hip fractures and injury-related hospitalization among older adults. In fact, one in three people over the age of 65 experiences at least one fall a year.

A team of UNC Asheville professors are determined to decrease this number. Ultimately, they hope their findings will be used to develop strategies to help the growing ranks of older Americans keep their balance and prevent falls.

The project is led by assistant professors Patrick Foo in Psychology and Jason Wingert in Health and Wellness. The remainder of the research team is rounded out by Brad Deweese, co-director of the Human Performance Laboratory; Michael Neelon, assistant professor of Psychology; and Chris Nicolay, associate professor of Biology.

Their research ties into the recent addition of a Neuroscience minor and the North Carolina Center for Health & Wellness, a new initiative devoted to the prevention of chronic health conditions by promoting healthy living among North Carolinians of all ages. Particular areas of focus at the center are the prevention of childhood obesity, promoting senior wellness, and the enhancement of workplace wellness.

Funding for the team’s research was provided by UNC Asheville’s Wellness Initiative Starter Grant program.

“UNC Asheville is becoming a focal point for lifelong wellness in the Southeast,” Foo said. “So, we’d like to better understand balance, see fewer people fall, and therefore improve people’s lives.”

The research will focus on proprioception, which is one’s sense of the relative position of different parts of the body.

“We’re measuring how your brain knows where you are in the world,” Wingert explained. “There’s belief that this sense decreases with age just as many other senses decrease.”

The team will use a device created by Wingert that measures proprioception based on arm and leg movement. Similar to a protractor, it will measure the angle of the outstretched appendage, first with full sight, then with a curtain covering the arm or leg. Researchers will measure the disparity in which the participant’s arm or leg points to gauge proprioception. Researchers also will study balance using a force plate, a sophisticated instrument that measures the amount of body sway.

We want older adults to be functional. These do not have to be years of decline—they can be years of potential.”

“The goal is to look for a relationship between proprioception, age, and changes in balance,” said Wingert. “Does a decrease in proprioception increase a person’s risk of falling?”

The next phase of research will literally put the findings into action.

“We want to help people be more mindful of their body, so we’re bringing in yoga,” Wingert said. Research subjects will learn a simple yoga stance that may help them become more aware of body sway movements that naturally occur while standing. If the pose decreases sway, it can be added to fall prevention efforts.

“We’re trying to find strategies for people to be more balanced in their daily lives and remain active,” said Wingert.

Foo agrees. “We want older adults to be functional,” he said. “These do not have to be years of decline—they can be years of potential.”

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