Falls leading to injury are a leading cause of hospitalization and disability among older adults and fall prevention is a major factor in helping seniors stay mobile and live independently. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults who experience falls accounts for about 3 million emergency room visits each year.
A group of mechanical engineering students studying at the University of Colorado Boulder drew from personal family experience to help design a walker that works with the user to help prevent falls. The prototype, dubbed Smart Step, uses a sensor at the base of the walker to collect data on the user’s walking patterns; information that could help a health care provider design a program to overcome weaknesses and prevent future falls.
Walkers, when used correctly, can help prevent falls for elderly adults but too often users don’t remember how to safely use their assistive device. Studies have found that many older adults who use a walker also need to be given balance and gait exercises and proper training to avoid falls. The National Center for Injury Prevention reports that as many as 47,300 adults over the age of 65 visit the hospital emergency room as a result of a fall while using a walking aid.
Leaning too much on a walker can result in a fall; the user should stay upright and keep in step with the walker, not walking with the device too far out in front or with the handles too high. The Smart Step walker is also designed with hand grips that vibrate if the user puts too much weight on their walker, reminding older adults to use good technique while walking with an assistive device.
The project has won first prize in the New Venture Challenge which comes with a $100,000 prize. The research team has used the winnings to create the startup company Stride Tech and they are looking at ways to get the device to market.