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New Mexico State University

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NMSU researchers using 3D cameras to help prevent falls

When a young person falls he may suffer from embarrassment; when an older person falls, the consequences can be more serious than a bruised ego. To help identify those at risk for potentially serious falls, researchers at New Mexico State University are using a 3D motion capture system to analyze the gait of older adults.

Engineering professor Ou Ma, left, and human performance, dance and recreation department head Robert Wood use reflective markers and other imaging equipment to record and analyze the movements of a test subject walking on a treadmill. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Robert Wood, professor and academic head of NMSU's department of human performance, dance and recreation is working with Ou Ma, professor of mechanical engineering, to analyze and compare movement patterns of older adults who have and have not fallen in order to more accurately assess factors that put people at risk for falls. The study has been funded through the NMSU Interdisciplinary Research Grant program.

The gait analysis will be performed at NMSU's recently constructed Reduced Gravity and Biomechanics Lab (RGB Lab). Subjects will have photo-reflective technical markers placed on various parts of the body (arms, chest, back, legs and feet) to help the 10-camera system track the person's movements in three dimensions.

"A benefit to this type of analysis is that we will have information generated by the software as well as the 3D data points from the markers and the regular video file. This way we can go between the different types of information to more accurately understand what is happening and why," Ma said.

The subjects will walk on an instrumented treadmill with a belt for each foot that measures kinematic information including velocity, joint angles and the magnitude of force used by the person walking.

Specialized software generates data Wood and Ma can analyze to determine what distinguishes a normal gait from an abnormal gait. Once these factors are isolated, researchers can more accurately determine not only who is at risk for falls, but their degree of risk. Moreover, the development of a sensitive assessment can be used to assess the efficacy of future interventions.

According to Wood, falls are the number one cause of injurious death in older adults and one out of every three older adults will fall each year.

"Associated with falls is considerable financial cost to the patient and family, time lost at work to the patient and/or family members and fear and anxiety in the injured person," Wood said. "This is why it's important to not only prevent falls, but to work with people who have fallen to both decrease their risk and increase their confidence in activities of daily living."

This increased confidence can facilitate a previously injured person's participation in regular physical activity, thereby reducing the likelihood of future falls and limiting the extent of future injury.

Wood has been conducting research associated with falls since 2000 and has helped develop a written screening instrument and collected risk data on approximately 800 older adults.

Wood and Ma have recruited undergraduate students Samantha Johnson and Krystyna Gonzalez and graduate students Lin Zhang and Wenwu Xiu to go to conferences, present data, translate documents, work in the community and collect testing data and develop mathematical models.

"The students are a really critical in the project," Wood said. "I can't do it without them."

The partnership with Ma and the RGB lab is helping Wood take his prior research a step further by providing another tool to help delineate the factors that put people at risk for falls. The resulting data may also prove beneficial to places that provide preventative and aftercare to individuals who are at risk for falls.

"Our mission ultimately is to enhance quality of life and falls represent a significant threat to that quality," Wood said. He plans to continue working with places like cooperative living communities and health care facilities in order to track individuals over an extended period of time.

As baby boomers age and life expectancy increases, there has been growing research that focuses on preventative care that aims to improve the quality of life of adults as they age. Wood points out that funding this type of research is often less expensive than funding research relating to pharmaceuticals and is also an important step toward controlling health care costs.

For more information about the falls research contact Wood at 575-646-2441 or bobwood@ad.nmsu.edu.