Dean Finds Answers Through Questions

By Michelle L. Klampe
Photo by Brian Stethem ’84

Students Mike Calkins and Tiffany Linville and Dr. Michele LeBlanc (lower left) measure Mildred Johl’s leg strength using an isokinetic machine.

Twice a week for six weeks this summer, Dick and Ginger Power of Ventura welcomed California Lutheran University senior Tiffany Linville into their home for coffee, cookies and a little exercise.

With Linville’s help and guidance, Dick, 82, and Ginger, 83, used stretchy latex Thera-Bands to build strength in their legs and hips for 20 to 30 minutes per visit, then ended the session with a treat and some conversation with Linville, a 21-year-old senior from Ventura who is majoring in exercise science.

“It’s been fun. We’ve really enjoyed having her,” Ginger Power said. “And we thought the exercise would be a good thing.”

Linville and her project partner, Mike Calkins, think so, too. They developed the training program as part of a research project on the role of exercise in building stability, mobility and strength in the elderly. They’re trying to find out if a simple, at-home exercise program can lead to a reduction in the dangerous falls that lead to thousands of serious injuries and deaths among older adults.

“We chose a project that I think is going to be really beneficial, not only to the [research] subjects, but also to the field of gerontology and the study of aging,” said Calkins, a 22-year-old senior from Aloha, Ore., majoring in exercise science and sports medicine with a minor in communication.

A third of elderly affected

More than a third of adults over age 65 fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and falls are the leading cause of injury deaths and hospital admissions.

Up to a third of fall victims suffer moderate to severe injuries such as hip fractures or head trauma, including traumatic brain injuries, that can make it harder for them to get around and limit independent living.

In Ventura County, unintentional falls were the No. 1 cause of fatal injuries for those older than 64 in 2004, the latest year of data available from the California Department of Health Care Services.

Thirty-three adults 65 or older died as a result of falls that year in the county; another 1,514 fall injuries by people in that age group required hospitalization.

Reducing the risk of a fall could have a dramatic effect on an aging adult’s quality of life and lifespan; research has shown the more active a senior is, the better the person’s overall health.

People using walkers

“There’s too many of these people that just want to use walkers,” said Pat Atkins, an 81-year-old study participant from Thousand Oaks who stays active despite breathing difficulty as a result of lung damage from cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. “I think ‘why don’t you just move?’ Sitting is something I do not like to do.”

Calkins, who is considering a career in sports management, and Linville, who is interested in physical therapy, earned $8,000 in grants to conduct the research during their summer vacation.

The competitive Swenson Summer Fellowship grants, provided through a donation to the University by the Swenson family, were awarded to 11 CLU students this year. The fellowships provide a rare opportunity for undergraduate students to conduct scientific research, says Michele LeBlanc, Chair of the CLU Department of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine.

“There’s so many benefits of it, for both personal and professional development,” LeBlanc said of the research opportunity. “The growth, maturity and knowledge the students have gained will be immeasurable.”

Under LeBlanc’s supervision, Linville and Calkins researched the topic, developed a study proposal, recruited seniors to participate and worked with their training subjects each week. Then, over the last two weeks, they put their subjects through a set of tests to measure their progress.

40 seniors participated

About 40 seniors, with an average age of 81, participated in the study. Half were a control group, participating only in the initial assessment of their strength, balance and stability and a follow-up assessment six weeks later.

The other half of the participants, including the Powers, also participated in the six-week, at-home exercise regimen.

“That’s kind of our big thing in this study,” Linville said. “Everybody can do it in their own house. You don’t need equipment except a simple, little light Thera-Band, and you can do them all on your own. And they’re pretty quick and easy, no more than 25 minutes.”

The testing was conducted in CLU’s new human performance lab, which opened a year ago in the University’s new Gilbert Sports and Fitness Center. The lab includes a force plate mounted in the flooring that was used in this study to record postural sway — the miniscule movements people make when they are standing in one spot.

It also features an isokinetic machine that was used to measure participants’ leg strength by isolating specific muscles.

At the end of the study, the Powers said they can feel the difference.

“I’m probably a little more sure of myself on steps and with balance,” Dick Power said. He and his wife plan to continue with the exercises they learned.

Linville and Calkins, with help from LeBlanc, still must analyze the data they gathered during their study.

They hope to bring all their research subjects back next month to review the changes they saw in the individuals who participated, as well as what they learned overall. Even without the science to back them up, the researchers already believe the work they’ve done has had an impact.

“It’s amazing what can happen in six weeks,” LeBlanc said. “Even when they walked in, most of our subjects, we could see a difference.”

Reprinted with permission from Ventura County Star, Sept. 9, 2007.

Editor’s Note: In October, Linville, Calkins and LeBlanc met with all the research subjects to explain the positive results of the data analysis. The training proved to be very effective in decreasing postural sway, increasing mobility and increasing leg strength, says LeBlanc. With the success of this first project, the research team has already been approached by several organizations that would like similar balance programs conducted for their elderly residents. Linville and Calkins presented results of the study at the Southwest American College of Sports Medicine meeting in San Diego in November.

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