'Magic Carpet' Could Prevent Falls Among the Elderly


By Allison Takeda

Move over, Aladdin! Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed their own version of a "magic carpet." It doesn't fly, and it won't take you over, sideways, and under on a ride through the Arabian night sky, but it can use tiny sensors to map people's walking patterns -- patterns that may then be analyzed to predict and even prevent falls.

Falls are the leading cause of injury death and the most common cause of hospital admissions for trauma among people 65 and over, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Each year, one in three older adults suffers a fall and risks lacerations, hip fractures, head injuries, and even death. More than 19,700 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries in 2008 -- and with the world's population aging every year, that number is likely to increase.

"Falls are a really important problem for our aging society. More than a third of older people fall each year, and in nursing and residential homes it is much more common than that," University of Manchester professor Chris Todd, PhD, said in a statement about the research. "Older people will benefit from exercises to improve balance and muscle strength in the legs. So being able to identify changes in people's walking patterns and gait in the natural environment, such as in a corridor in a nursing home, could really help us identify problems earlier on."

Rolling Out the Smart Carpet

Developed by experts at the university's Photon Science Institute and three academic schools, the technology is similar to a tomographic technique used in some hospital scanners: Deflected light patterns are transmitted to a computer, which then converts the patterns into 2-D images. In this case, however, the patterns come from a mesh of pressure-sensitive plastic optical fibers laid underneath a regular carpet.

Presenting their research at the Institute of Physics' Photon 12 conference this week, the scientists said the idea could be easily incorporated into already-existing carpets in retirement centers, hospital wards, and even personal living spaces to alert caregivers to a fall or detect any subtle or steady deterioration in people's balance or mobility. Family members and nurses could then work to address the issue with exercisesor home improvements -- for example, extra railings, better lighting, and shower bars.

"The carpet can be retrofitted at low cost, to allow living space to adapt as the occupiers' needs evolve -- particularly relevant with an aging population and for those with long-term disabilities," the Photon Science Institute's Patricia Scully, PhD, explained in a statement. "[It could also be] incorporated non-intrusively into any living space or furniture surface such as a mattress or wall that a patient interacts with."

The technology is versatile in other ways, too. It could even be adapted to detect hazards such as toxic spills or fire.

"The carpet can gather a wide range of information about a person's condition, from biomechanical to chemical sensing of body fluids," Dr. Scully added. "[This enables] holistic sensing to provide an environment that detects and responds to changes in patient condition."

"This is really exciting work at the forefront of research using technologies to prevent falls," Professor Todd said in the statement. "[It] represents a unique collaboration between scientists from different backgrounds working together to identify a smart solution to an important problem."