STOP FALLS: Smart Soles and Other High-Tech Ways to Stop Falls

STOP FALLS: Smart Soles and Other High-Tech Ways to Stop Falls

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Photo: Shown is a free fitness class for reducing the risk of falls, held at Ottawa’s Fisher Heights Community Place. (Jean Levac Jean Levac/Postmedia News)

Part 2 of 2: Click to see Part 1, "The High Cost of Falling Down."

OTTAWA, Ontario--The future of fall prevention could be in the soles of your shoes.
That is where an Ottawa-based high-tech company is focusing its work — on smart insoles that could predict when seniors are at risk of falling, among other things.

The company, Autonomous ID, was founded in 2007 with the aim of developing biometric identification and monitoring technologies.

Its BioSole measures the pressure placed on the different regions of the foot while a person is standing, walking and running. It can be used to prevent injuries in the workplace, to monitor and prevent sports injuries, and to monitor and track the progression of diseases, such as Parkinson’s, company officials say.

It can also help predict a person’s risk of falling by monitoring balance and gait, which could address one of the deadliest risks for seniors.

First Developed for Soldiers

The BioSole was originally designed as a security measure to protect soldiers, said CEO and chief inventor Todd Gray. He came up with the idea, he said, after an attack on U.S. soldiers in Iraq by a local fighter wearing an American uniform.

The soles were designed as a “biometric platform,” said Gray, to help prevent enemy impersonation — they can identify a person within three steps. The technology turned out to have other uses — including helping to predict and prevent falls.

“Each person walks in a way that is unique to them,” says company information. That gait creates

 Payne Sole Chart.jpg 

a biometric signature that can be used to establish identity and monitor various health conditions. Data taken from a person’s soles can be monitored for changes over time.

Not only could the soles monitor changes in gait, but weight loss and balance irregularities that could suggest a growing risk for a fall, or an illness.

Clinical trials are about to get underway in three provinces, run through the University of New Brunswick Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

The company said the technology could be used for a number of consumer and medical products — from insoles that will identify the user in order to gain access to his or her car, for example, to a general consumer product, something like a digital step counter, but to measure mobility. The company also believes there is a future for the smart sole technology as a kind of medical device to record key information and link it with electronic health records to help prevent falls.

New App for Prevention

Ottawa scientist Ed Lemaire, a researcher with The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa, is also studying high-tech ways to prevent falls. He has done research on wearable sensors, along with colleagues at the University of Waterloo.

The researchers tested 100 elderly participants using wearable sensors on various parts of their bodies to identify mathematical models that would predict fall risk.

Eventually, the technology might be boiled down to a smartphone app that could be used in doctors’ offices as a screening tool to determine whether patients are at risk for a fall, Lemaire said.

Monitoring devices that detect falls once they have happened are already big business across North America. But researchers are increasingly focused on ways to prevent falls before they happen, with exercise, better footwear and other low-tech approaches, as well as high tech screening devices.

At British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, meanwhile, researchers are focused on preventing injuries, rather than simply trying to prevent falls. People will fall, is the theory, so some effort needs to go into lessening the injuries caused by those falls.

Among their designs are a padded hip protector that prevents a fall from turning into a hip fracture, as well as bouncy flooring that softens the blow of a fall. Researchers at Simon Fraser University believe the flooring alone can help prevent as much as 80 per cent of hip fractures, among the most devastating injuries for older adults.

This is the second of two articles by The Ottawa Citizen’s Elizabeth Payne, who wrote the series with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New American Media, The Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.