Scientists working to help astronauts regain balance after extended flights in zero gravity say they have found a way to use the research to help elderly people avoid catastrophic falls.
An "iShoe" insole contains sensors that read how well a person is balancing. The point is to gather information for doctors and to get people to a specialist before they fall.
Erez Lieberman, a graduate student who developed the technology while working as an intern at NASA, says a damaging fall is preceded by numerous warnings, similar to how high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure point to a coming heart attack.
"You gradually get worse and worse at balancing," said Lieberman, who studies in a joint Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology health science and technology program. "If you know the problem is there, you can start addressing the problem."
The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates 300,000 people annually suffer hip fractures, which are often caused by falls. An average of 24 percent of hip fracture patients age 50 and over die within a year of the fracture.
Many fall victims who don't die within a year end up being disabled the rest of their lives.
The idea for the iShoe came to Lieberman while he was working at NASA last summer on a project to help astronauts regain balance after months in zero gravity. The work is part of preparations for long space missions, such as trips to Mars, that require astronauts to perform complicated tasks on the terrain soon after landing.
The balance research seemed to Lieberman to have obvious earthly applications for the elderly.
He and Katharine Forth, a visiting scientist at NASA who also works on the iShoe, had been touched personally by the issue of elderly falls, with each seeing a grandmother's health rapidly deteriorate after such an accident.
NASA tests balance with an expensive device about the size of a phone booth. Lieberman and Forth say the iShoe insole, slipped inside any shoe, solves the problem of portability and affordability, since the device would cost about $100.
The iShoe researchers used some of their own work and previous NASA data to determine how pressure is distributed on the foot by people with balance problems, compared to those with good balance.
They then were able to determine certain pressure patterns that show up when people are struggling with balance.
The iShoe, with a half dozen sensors, is not an instant alarm, though it will send out a signal if the wearer actually falls. It's more like a data recorder that the user can bring to a doctor or balance specialist for help if the dangerous pressure patterns are seen.
Balance problems are caused by many factors, including deteriorating muscle tone, bad vision and inner ear problems, and the possible solutions can be as simple as a tai chi exercise to build strength.
The iShoe has a way to go to reach the market. Lieberman estimates $1 million is needed for a broad clinical trial, and $3 million to $4 million to bring the insole to market.