A new grant is helping University of Arizona researchers launch a pilot study aimed at preventing falls in older adults.

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The $21,000 “seed” grant, awarded by the Tucson-based Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, will enable researchers to test out two approaches to preventing falls - a virtual reality - based training program meant to strengthen the body, and a yoga meditation technique to strengthen the mind.

Michael Schwenk, a researcher with the UA Interdisciplinary Consortium on Advanced Motion Performance and one of the study’s principal investigators, says the experiment will look at whether combining the two activities makes them more effective.

Some participants in the study will train exclusively through the virtual reality-based program, which uses wearable sensors worn on the feet and a computer game-based training program to improve balance. Others will combine the balance training with a yoga meditation technique called “Kirtan Kriya” that has been shown in past studies to reduce stress and inflammation and to improve memory.

Outcomes from these two groups will be compared to a control group receiving no intervention to test whether the training program works, and if the meditation technique enhances its effectiveness, Schwenk said.

Finding better ways to prevent falls among the elderly is crucial, Schwenk said, because falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries in that population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three persons aged 65 and older falls each year, and this percentage increases to 40 percent after age 75.

Even a single fall can carry the risk of lost mobility and independence, Schwenk said.

After a fall, an older adult “may avoid their normal activities of daily living, and by this they may further reduce their motor performances,” which can create a vicious circle that leads to more fear and more falls, he said.

The researchers will work with residents of the Villa Hermosa Senior Living Center to conduct the study, which is expected to start early next year.