While virtual reality devices are commonly associated with video games, recently researchers found that virtual reality can be used to reduce risks of falls in older adults. When older adults at high risk of falls using a combination of virtual reality and treadmills were compared to a group using treadmills alone, the virtual reality group showed significantly reduced incidence of falls.
One well established way of helping older adults reduce falls risk is physical exercise, which strengthens relevant muscles and improves gait and balance. So how does virtual reality build on the benefits of physical exercise to help prevent falls? The designers of this virtual reality system realized that many falls were a result of tripping and poor negotiation of obstacles. While walking, older adults’ legs can pass dangerously close to potential hazards. There is also a cognitive component associated with negotiating potential obstacles, which is why cognitive decline is associated with greater falls risk. The virtual reality system in this study simulated the types of tripping risks and hazards associated with older adult falls so that the study participants could practice better avoiding such hazards and get feedback on their performance.
This study of the virtual reality system’s effectiveness involved 302 older adults at high risk of falls and with a variety of conditions associated with high falls risk (such as Parkinson’s and mild cognitive impairment). Half of these individuals used the virtual reality system in combination with a treadmill for six weeks; the others used only the treadmill. At the start of the study, the virtual reality group averaged 10.7 falls in a six-month period and the treadmill alone group averaged 11.7. In the six months after their training, the average number of falls in the virtual reality group had dropped to 6.0, while the treadmill alone group showed more variability, with the average number of falls reduced to 8.27. Gait, foot clearance, and balance also improved more for the virtual reality group.
Based on this evidence and their observations, the study’s authors conclude that “a game-like approach based on virtual reality seems to be able to engage subjects, motivate compliance and reduce falls rates.”
Mirelman A, Rochester L, Maidan I, et al. Addition of a non-immersive virtual reality component to treadmill training to reduce fall risk in older adults (V-TIME): a randomised controlled trial. The Lancet. (2016). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31325-3