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Jean Wyman

Jean Wyman, who directs the University of Minnesota's Center for Nursing Research on Elders, is leading a study on the effects of walking and balance exercises on fall prevention.

Preventing falls among elderly women

By Mame Osteen

From eNews, April 20, 2006

Those of us who regularly vow--and fail--to get more exercise know how difficult it is to change, even when that change promises better health and longevity. "Making physical activity a priority is a major challenge," says Jean Wyman, who directs the University of Minnesota's Center for Nursing Research on Elders. "It's even harder in older adults who are a little bit more frail and unsteady."

Unfortunately, balance impairment, muscle weakness, medication use and other aspects of advancing age contribute to a risk for falls, a major problem among the elderly. Exercise, Wyman believes, can reverse that risk--and save lives.

Studies show that 33 percent of people age 55 and over take a fall each year. The costs are high--patients with hip fractures run up $15,000 or more in hospitalization costs, often losing their independence or even their lives. Mortality rates associated with falls are especially high in Minnesota.

As principal investigator in a five-year, $2 million study, "Fall Prevention Program for High Risk Elderly Women," Wyman is directing an interdisciplinary team of two-dozen researchers from about a half dozen U departments to study the effects of exercise--specifically walking and balance exercise--on fall prevention.

Dancing for better balance

U professor of kinesiology Carla Tabourne is studying the impact of dance on older adults. She says health care providers are particularly interested in the topic of balance among older adults because falls are the leading incidents that take people from living at home to a nursing facility.

To learn more, read "Moving towards vitality" in M, summer 2005.

The study is based on a recognized theory of behavior change to help patients successfully incorporate exercise into their lives. "Many other studies have not used health behavior theory... and I think that's why we're seeing people make changes," says Wyman.

Participants receive environmental and medication hazard education and a home assessment that identifies potential trouble spots. They then work with a visiting nurse to choose the risks they want to modify and negotiate an action plan. The standardized program includes a 30-minute walk five days a week, and twice-weekly balance and strength training. Two years of telephone intervention on a computerized, interactive system completes the program and helps cement the change.

The potential benefits are undeniable. Fewer falls would significantly cut costs associated with fall-related treatment and hospitalization. The heightened quality of life--improved balance, gait, function, mood, and confidence--is incalculable.

If successful and cost-effective, the U's fall prevention program may someday be packaged for managed care organizations to use with older patients.