The 12-month clinical trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association aimed to show the importance of exercise in the elderly and how it can help to prevent falls. Conducted by UBC faculty of medicine researchers in partnership with the clinical team at the Falls Prevention Clinic at Vancouver General Hospital found a reduction in fall rate and also a small improvement in cognitive ability in older adults who received balance and strength training exercise through the trial.
Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, principal investigator at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia spoke about the clinical trial saying, “When we think about falls we often think about loss of muscle strength and poor balance. However, the ability to remain upright and not fall is also dependent on cognitive abilities—calculating how far to lift your foot to get over a curb, making a decision as to when to cross the road, and paying attention to your physical environment while you are having a conversation.”
A History of Falls
For the study, researchers looked to 344 adults aged 70 and older who had been referred to the Falls Prevention Clinic following a fall that had lead to a visit to a medical facility. All participants had a history of falls and generally experienced limited mobility and frailty. They averaged three prior falls per person.
Researchers had participants perform a set of resistance and balance training exercises using simple, at-home equipment such as free weights for over a six-month period. They were all required to accomplish the exercises for a minimum of three times a week. Over the course of the trial, a physical therapist made five home visits to ensure exercises were being done properly and to avoid any injury.
For all participants who completed the program, the results were notable. The study showed that participants were less likely to experience repeat falls. It was also shown as a secondary benefit, they improved in some areas of cognitive function.
Liu-Ambrose, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience commented on the study findings, “It is well known that exercise benefits older people in general, but what was special about this study group was that they are at very high risk for losing their independence—they had both mobility and cognitive impairments and another fall may mean the inability to live in their own homes. Many already had difficulty navigating public spaces independently.”
“Older adults who experience falls that require medical attention falls are medically complex and at high risk for both morbidity and mortality, and we demonstrated that exercise is a practical and cost-effective intervention that can improve older peoples’ outcomes after a significant fall,” she added.
Since falls in seniors are the third-leading cause of chronic disability, Liu-Ambrose and her team are now looking at whether the exercise program can result in reduced medical costs in this high-risk population. This study shows the importance of a home exercise program and how all adults can benefit from increased muscle strength and balance.