Ground-breaking Canadian research into how and why senior citizens fall and suffer injury may lead to improved strategies to prevent tumbles by the elderly.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia are the first to use closed circuit video surveillance systems to observe falls in real time to best pinpoint the causes.

For their study, published Tuesday in the online edition of The Lancet, they used video from CCTV systems in the public areas of two long-term care facilities in the province. The researchers observed 227 falls among 130 residents.

The most frequent cause of falling -- in 41 per cent of cases -- was seniors merely shifting their weight improperly, throwing off their centre of gravity.

Twenty-five per cent of falls were caused by a foot getting caught on a table or chair leg, while 21 per cent were caused by trips or stumbles.

Researchers have long assumed that seniors most often fall because they slipped or tripped, information based on interviews with the seniors themselves, incident reports or re-enactments in the laboratory.

But Prof. Stephen Rabinovitch said falls his team observed “were really failed attempts at performing daily activities, like walking, sitting down, even standing, reaching or turning.”

Slips only accounted for three per cent of falls in this study.

The findings are important, researchers said, because of the frequency of falls in senior citizens and their resulting health consequences.

Falls are the most frequent cause of unintentional injuries in seniors, accounting for 90 per cent of hip and wrist fractures, and 60 per cent of head injuries.

Statistics show that 30 per cent of senior citizens who live on their own and 50 per cent of those who live in long-term care facilities fall at least once a year.

The researchers hope that their findings will lead to better strategies for preventing falls, both at home and in care centres.

“Prevention of falls in elderly people needs to be a public health priority,” Rabinovitch said in a statement.

“However, up to now, the general scarcity of reliable information on falls in elderly people has hindered the development of safer environments for older people and fall prevention programmes.”

Rabinovitch pointed to the frequency with which people who used wheelchairs fell when they tried to sit down and the chair rolled out from underneath them.

“So we need improvements on automatic brakes for wheelchairs,” he told CTV.                                                    

The researchers are also testing devices such as padded hip protectors to prevent fractures, as well as new types of flooring with rubber columns to absorb falls.

In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Clemens Becker of Robert Bosch Hospital in Stuttgart noted that one of the study’s limitations is that only falls in public spaces were observed. According to Becker, only half of all falls in long-term care facilities take place in public areas.

However, he also said the findings will help researchers develop sensors to help monitor falls, which will lead to even more detailed research.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip