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Keeping balance

Research being conducted out of the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences could help reduce falls among older adults.

From left, Kysha Harriell, a faculty member in the School of Education’s Department Kinesiology and Sport Sciences, looks at a monitor while examining some of the fall-assessment data of researcher Abby Bedient and study participant Maria Paolercio.

With a harness strapped around her waist, Maria Paolercio did everything she could to maintain her balance, shifting her weight with each movement of the multidirectional platform on which she stood. Just a few feet away, University of Miami researcher Abby Bedient looked at a computer monitor that was recording Paolercio’s motion as she attempted to compensate for the tilts and turns of the platform. Although not a very exciting spectator event, no observer could argue with the importance of what was taking place during this test of balance.

Balance-assessment research being conducted in UM’s School of Education could help reduce the number of falls among older adults—and in turn lower the incidence of injury and death as well as reduce health care costs associated with such mishaps.

“There’s been little research in this area, but it’s important that it be done given that several older adults fall each year in this country,” said Bedient, a recently graduated doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences. She noted that falls are a leading cause of “injury deaths” among the elderly.

For her study, Bedient tested 66 adults ranging from ages 60 to 93 by strapping them into a harness and having them stand on a balance-assessment machine called a Proprio 5000 while she and her research team analyzed their ability to maintain equilibrium on a multidirectional platform.

Looking at digital readouts and other data, Bedient, who recruited her test subjects from Miami-Dade and Broward counties, was able to identify areas of movement in which participants were deficient, providing the opportunity to use the information to devise fall-prevention strategies.

Bedient, who graduated last May and now teaches at Broward College, said she was surprised at some of the results generated by the study. She found, for example, that subjects categorized as “non-fallers” scored worse on certain tests than “fallers.”

“Specifically, they [non-fallers] had increased movement while trying to maintain their balance,” Bedient explained. “But this may actually be a benefit to the individual and could indicate a compensation strategy with the ability to adjust to external stimuli, therefore reducing potential falls.”

Bedient is currently presenting her findings at national conferences and hopes to publish her research in top academic journals.

Her work is part of a series of balance-assessment studies that are being carried out within the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences. In another study, School of Education faculty member Kysha Harriell is investigating why female athletes are four to six times more likely to have major knee injuries than their male counterparts.

A former sports medicine trainer for UM’s Department of Athletics, Harriell initially hypothesized that female athletes are more prone to suffering knee injuries such as anterior cruciate ligament tears during the late stage of their menstrual cycle, when they become “clumsy,” she noticed. But her theory was proved incorrect after results from a balance study conducted on a group of female athletes revealed no differences in their coordination during the different stages of their menstrual cycles. She plans to test more athletes.

And in another investigation, a kinesiology and sport sciences doctoral student is studying whether the Nintendo Wii gaming system, which allows users to control their characters using physical gestures, can be used to develop an interactive fall prevention program.

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