UB Study Aims to Keep Seniors On Their Toes, Prevent Falls

By Lois Baker

Release Date: October 2, 1997

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ninety-one-year-old Hal Lawrence balances unsteadily on one foot on a bed of large gravel under the watchful eye of a student volunteer. Joan Campanini, 69, wobbles on a small rocker board, while Lila Marshall, 73, attempts to stand reasonably firmly on a large wedge of foam rubber.

The seniors are taking part in a University at Buffalo study that also has them running relay races and exercising at a ballet barre, and is designed to determine if certain exercises can improve balance and agility in older adults, and help them remain active and self sufficient. Louise Gilchrist, assistant professor of physical therapy and exercise and nutrition sciences, designed the exercises and is conducting the study with the aid of a UB-funded Mark Tanner Grant.

“Falls are such a problem in the elderly,” said Gilchrist, whose expertise is in gait and balance. “Tripping on a rug might cause young people to stumble, but the elderly will fall. If we can improve balance and agility so they can stop themselves, we may be able to reduce the number of falls.”

With little precedence to draw on, Gilchrist developed her own exercises based on experience, instinct and common sense. “There is some understanding that working on standing balance is helpful, “she said, “but there is little evidence about agility in the elderly, because nobody has measured it particularly. Most of our agility tests are modified from tests used with children and young adults.”

Wishing to work with a population of “regular people who are out there,” Gilchrist recruited volunteers for the study from local senior citizen centers. If they were older than 67 and generally healthy, they were eligible. She took 15 volunteers as subjects and 19 more as controls. All participants were tested for balance and agility in UB’s biomechanics lab, using measures such as walking velocity on both straight and crooked paths, postural sway and standing balance.

After the 10-week study, she will test all participants again to determine if those who took the class improved, and to compare results from the exercise and control groups.

Initial tests yielded some interesting data, Gilchrist said. “I was surprised at how specific the deficit can be. Some participants could move very quickly, but their standing balance was not very good. I was also surprised by the range of balance deficits, and by the realization that coordination isn’t necessarily an ‘age thing.’”

One’s physical stability, she noted, involves many factors -- the eyes, inner ear, reflexes, reaction time -- and a quality called proprioception, which means sensing the position of your body. The ability of nerves to transmit this information to the brain is reduced in the elderly. To address this problem, many of the exercises in the study include an emphasis on being aware of where the feet are.

The study class meets for an hour, three times a week. Gilchrist tries to make it fun, as well as therapeutic. Participants run obstacle courses, compete in relay races, carry medicine balls, and do exercises at a ballet barre, in addition to doing more mundane exercises, such as walking along a straight line, balancing on one foot on different surfaces and rising from a kneeling position.

Some of the participants say they notice improvement after only three weeks. “I never really knew what was wrong with me,” said Hal Lawrence, at 91 the oldest study participant, who said he fell and broke an arm a few years ago. “My balance has improved tremendously. I used to have to grab something to keep from falling when I turned around, but now I don’t do that.”

Lila Marshall said she feels stronger, although the study is not designed specifically for that purpose. “I’m using muscles I haven’t used for a while. My balance hasn’t been good, and it’s getting better. My coordination also is better.”

If the post-study tests bear out these observations, Gilchrist hopes to convince senior citizen centers to incorporate the exercises into their existing programs.

“Exercise training studies require a lot of time,” Gilchrist said, “but I think this can do some good.”