Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Saturday, 24 October 2009 00:27 UK

The ear alarm to prevent falls

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Roy Upsall
Retired accountant Roy Upsall said his fall had knocked his confidence

Roy Upsall ended up in hospital after falling while getting out of bed.

He was fortunate in that there was no lasting damage, but not everyone is so lucky.

Falls are the leading cause of death in the over-75s - ahead of the likes of cancer and heart disease.

But a lightweight monitoring device which can be worn behind the ear may now hold the key to tackling the problem.

The Ear Worn Activity Recognition Sensor, or e-AR as it is known, can be used to find out how stable the elderly are on their feet, by measuring the amount the patient sways.

Wearers carry out a series of tasks such as walking, sitting and standing so that doctors can assess the patient's risk of falling and when they are most at risk.

This information can then be used to target help, such as extra care and home adjustments, to stop them falling.

Falls are a really big problem and causes a lot of people to lose confidence and a lot of people to become institutionalised
Dr Frank Miskelly

Roy is just one of several patients attending a specialist falls clinic at London's Charing Cross Hospital, where patients are being asked to test the new technology, which was designed by Imperial College London.

The 83-year-old, a retired accountant, admitted his own fall had dented his confidence, but said the e-AR could make a real difference to people like him.

"I did not do any damage to myself," said Roy, from London, "but [a fall] does shake you up. It's a warning.

"I'll see the bed and think, that's where I fell.

"Anything that can help should be welcomed and this sounds interesting."


Every year, more than 700,000 people over 65 attend accident and emergency departments after a fall.

Andrew Harrop, head of policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged, said falls were a big area of concern.

"Older people falling over is an often overlooked health issue, despite being a major cause of death for over-75s.

"One fall can have a devastating effect on an older person's life and long-term mobility - aside from the serious effects on long-term health, the experience can also leave an older person housebound, isolated and depressed."

Dr Frank Miskelly, a consultant in elderly medicine who runs the Charing Cross clinic, said cutting the number of falls would have a real impact on elderly care.

"More than 50% of the people who come to casualty have had a fall," he said.

"They are the commonest cause of people presenting at hospital and probably the commonest cause of why people are admitted to hospital and this is particularly among the elderly group.

Ear device
The new technology weighs only five grams

"Falls are a really big problem and cause a lot of people to lose confidence and a lot of people to become institutionalised.

"Because of a fall they might have to go and live in a home and often there is the fear of another fall."

Dr Miskelly said the device could also help in another way.

"It would also be a community alarm that would let them know for instance that Mrs Jones of Fulham Road has fallen over and they can go and pick her up.

"The difference between this alarm and one you wear round your neck is that if you fall over you do not always feel together enough to press a button round your neck.

"Here the system is automatic."

He said the system should be available for use in homes next year.

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