A new study has used virtual reality to help elderly patients retain key cognitive functions and prevent falls.

“Falls are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in older adults. Studies conducted in Europe, the USA, and Australia show that roughly a third of community-living people aged 65 years or older fall at least once per year, with half of this number having multiple falls in this period”, according to the study in the Lancet.

The trial combined virtual reality with treadmill training to help stimulate the minds of old people suffering from cognitive illnesses. Patients could see the movement of their own feet through the simulation, which was projected onto a screen in front of the treadmill. They had to avoid hurdles and puddles and navigate around pathways. Participants were motivated through performance scores and feedback.

Prof. Jeff Hausdorff and Dr. Anat Mirelman – authors of the report – found that 282 participants at 60 to 90 years of age were able to walk at least five minutes unassisted after undergoing the set training. Prior to the trial, they suffered at least two falls in six months.

Users trained with the simulation saw a decrease in fall rates by 50 percent. The biggest improvement was patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Hausdorff noted.

“We found that virtual reality plus treadmill training helped to reduce fall frequency and fall risk for at least six months after training — significantly more than treadmill training alone”, Mirelman told The Times of Israel.

The low-cost training, estimated at $4,500, could be used by ageing patients with cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s disease or dementia in rehabilitation centres, nursing homes and gyms, Hausdorff and Mirelman wrote.

The trial was a collaboration with partners in Europe, where participants ranged from five countries – Belgium, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. 130 of the participants suffered from Parkinson’s disease, while 43 suffered from mild cognitive impairment.

The study also found that participants undergoing the simulation training were satisfied with the exercise regime. ““This suggests that the virtual reality not only led to fewer falls, it was also more likely to be used in the long term. Exercise needs to be fun and effective if it is going to be used continually”, Hausdorff said.

Image by Bridget Coila, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0