CORVALLIS - New studies at Oregon State University have found that elderly Americans who follow a specific regimen of exercise can lower the risk of falls associated with osteoporosis and other age-related illness.

The key, researchers say, is to increase strength in the legs and hips through high power exercises using weighted vests.

The findings are important because they offer hope for a more active life to elderly persons who no longer are able to substantially increase bone mass to help offset osteoporosis, according to Christine Snow, director of the bone research laboratory in OSU's College of Health and Human Performance.

"Changing bone mass only solves part of the problem," Snow said. "We're also looking to help people stay on their feet to avoid falls."

The OSU study found that a series of exercises that included bench stepping, rising from a chair, and controlled, side-to-side "lunges" led to increased strength in the ankles, knees and hips, improved muscle power, maintained and even slightly increased bone mass, and significantly improved balance.

As a result, the test subjects were able to improve their gait speed up to 30 percent, boost their ability to walk in "S-turns" up to 40 percent, and get up much faster from chairs in timed trials.

The average age of the subjects, all from a nursing home, was 84 years.

"The most important result was when these people noticed changes in their daily lives," Snow said. "When I first talked to the group, I told them that when the program was over, all of them would be able to stand up without using their arms. Not one believed me.

"When the program was over every single one of them was able to do it."

The new study complements efforts at OSU and elsewhere that focus on increasing bone mass through weight lifting, nutrition and hormone injections. Snow is working with researchers at Harvard University who have created hip pads that shunt the force of falls away from vulnerable bones. These pads are filled with a putty-like material and act not unlike an airbag for humans.

Preventing falls in the first place is possible, the OSU studies suggest. Research now shows that nearly all of the broken wrists associated with osteoporosis actually result from a fall, not the loss of bone mass. Likewise, about 90 percent of persons over 70 who break their hips do so during falls to the side, not from the non-traumatic collapse of bone.

The causes of broken vertebrae in the elderly is split about 50-50 between falls and outright loss of bone mass, Snow said.

"Certainly the loss of bone mass plays a role in the breaking of the bone because of brittleness," Snow said. "But a majority of those breaks would not occur without the falls."

An important aspect of the OSU program, she said, is to challenge and overload the muscle systems. It can be done safely under supervision, Snow added, by paying attention to individual levels of fitness, progressing slowly, and monitoring the subjects' vision, cardiovascular systems, and central nervous systems for problems.

The idea for challenging the muscles of the elderly came from previous OSU studies that found the bone mass of gymnasts was significantly higher than the general population because of their high impact workouts.

Asking 84-year-olds to work out on the parallel bars wasn't an option, so OSU researchers used the principals involved and applied them to their test subjects.

"A lot of programs involve elderly persons sitting in a chair and doing neck stretches," Snow pointed out. "That's not really doing anything to challenge their muscle systems. All of the exercises we do are conducted on their feet. They make huge neural and postural adjustments.

"They end up training their systems and significantly improving their stability," she added.

One key to the OSU program was the development of specially designed vests that can accommodate up to 40 pounds of weight in half-pound increments. They allow persons exercising to slowly increase the impact of their exercise and stay well within their "comfort zone."

Though a handful of such vests were available on the market, none were tailored to fit a woman's body, Snow said. So she got a helping hand from students in an OSU apparels class taught by Nancy Bryant in redesigning and reshaping vests for the test subjects. They hope to eventually market them.

Initial funding for the project was provided by the American Association of Retired Persons.

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Christine Snow, 541-737-6788