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Study looks at reducing risk of falls through video games


10 February 2009
An innovative research project using video games to reduce the risk of falls for people with Parkinson's disease is under way at Southern Cross University's Coffs Harbour campus.

A pilot study involving people with Parkinson's disease, and some without the disease, is to be completed this month. Each person in the study group has been provided with a Wii Fit console, donated by Nintendo, and a training program which they are required to undertake several times each week.

The participants have undergone a series of tests throughout the program, with the final testing for this stage of the project held at the Coffs Harbour campus today (February 10).

The collaborative project is being led by Associate Professor Rick van der Zwan, from the Department of Psychology, Dr Stuart Smith of the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute, and run by Jessie McKenna, a fourth-year medical student at the University of New South Wales Rural Clinical School.

The goal is to determine the effectiveness of computer games in developing muscle strength and co-ordination and reducing the risk of falls for people with Parkinson's – a degenerative disease associated with ageing.

"People generally start to develop the disease in their 50s or 60s. It leads to inertia and people become unstable on their feet. Effects on vision mean it also becomes more difficult for sufferers to see things on the ground," Professor van der Zwan said.

"What we are trying to do is reduce the risk of serious harm. These people are nine times more likely to fall over than someone without the disease and falls in this older age group can be very serious.

"What we have done is give people a mechanism for engaging in activity that is safe and that they can do in their own homes."

"Anecdotal feedback from our study participants indicates that using the Nintendo Wii is an enjoyable and motivating way of doing some exercise. We now need to investigate whether use of the games result in any real health benefit, such as reducing the risk of falls. Our study is a preliminary attempt to find out how best to answer that question," Dr Smith said.

Professor van der Zwan said the next stage of the study would be to develop games that were age-relevant.

"Dr Smith, in collaboration with colleagues at the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute, Griffith University and us here at Southern Cross University, has also received funding from Parkinson's NSW to undertake a new study to evaluate the use of an in-home device for monitoring motor function in individuals with Parkinson's disease who live in regional, rural and remote areas," he said.

"One of the problems with living in rural areas is that people with Parkinson's disease don't have frequent access to specialist medical care."

The monitoring device can record on a regular and frequent basis the motor function in individuals with the disease and then link that data to the person's specialist via a web-based interface.

Professor van der Zwan said it was necessary to be able to monitor behaviours and changes in day-to-day life, but currently assessment depended on face-to-face assessment by clinical professions and required the individual to travel to a central clinic or hospital facility.

"In remote and rural communities, especially in a country like Australia, the distance, inconvenience and expense of travel often makes routine assessment of function very difficult. There is a pressing need to develop assessment tools that can be used in people's home environments," he said.

The study will involve participants from Sydney, Coffs Harbour and patients in remote locations.

"The results of this study could have significant implications for people with a range of health-related problems living in regional, rural and remote areas."

People interested in being involved in the project can contact Professor van der Zwan on (02) 6659 3306.

Photo: Vera Heil, co-ordinator for the Coffs Harbour Parkinson's Support Group, participates in a study using the Wii Fit console, with assistance from Jessie McKenna, a fourth-year student at the UNSW Rural Clinical School.

Media contact: Brigid Veale Southern Cross University communications manager 02 66593006 or 0439 680 748.