UPMC researchers part of $30M study to examine falls in older Americans

| Saturday, June 7, 2014, 8:21 p.m.

Each year, one-third of Americans over age 65 fall, and almost 25 percent of them suffer a serious injury, said Dr. Neil Resnick, head of geriatrics at UPMC.

A $30 million federally funded study will research how falls in older people can be prevented and how injuries suffered during falls can be better treated, said Resnick, a researcher involved in the study.

The national study will focus on patients over 75, the group most at risk. It is expected to take five years but could be finished sooner if it yields definitive results, he said.

“We've known for a long time that with age, the risk of having a fall and the consequences of having a fall escalate dramatically,” Resnick said.

The results of the study will be particularly relevant in Pittsburgh, where 14 percent of the population is over 65, according to the Census Bureau.

Falls accounted for 35 percent of accidental deaths in Allegheny County in 2009 and 2010, according to the Allegheny County Mortality Report from the county health department.

“This could be really good for everyone, not just older people,” Resnick said.

The study will require 6,000 research participants across the country, 600 from the UPMC system. Researchers will identify high-risk patients and ask them if they want to participate.

Gwenn Whiteford, director of rehabilitation for the St. Barnabas Health System, said 27 percent of patients admitted to St. Barnabas Nursing Home in Richland came there because of injuries from a fall. That figure does not include other facilities in the system.

Bill Haas, 78 of Gibsonia is in the age group considered most at risk.

Although he said he was not worried about falling, he and his wife specifically looked for a home where they wouldn't have to haul laundry up and down stairs.

“Everything we have is on the first floor,” said Haas, who was undergoing physical therapy at St. Barnabas Nursing Home after a double-bypass surgery. “And there's only one small step from the garage to the house.”

Cory Meeker, physical therapist at St. Barnabas, said many factors can increase the likelihood of a fall, and patients at St. Barnabas are given advice about how to avoid them. They include proper hand placement for balance, avoiding thick carpeted surfaces and making sure doorways are wide enough for a wheelchair or walker.

Physical therapists are often sent to patients' homes to help identify risks and offer ideas on safety improvements, he said.

The findings of the study could lead to new jobs in technology and pharmaceuticals, lower health insurance premiums by preventing expensive surgeries and nursing home admittances, and allow people in their 40s or 50s to spend less time worrying about their parents, Resnick said.

“It's not easy to prevent falls, but we think we can target the injurious ones,” he said.

Corinne Kennedy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7823 or ckennedy@tribweb.com.

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