Researcher Works to Identify Best Practices to Reduce Risk of Falls

Shirley Rietdyk

Shirley Rietdyk, PhD

Associate Professor, Department of
Health and Kinesiology


PhD, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Kinesiology, 1999

MSc, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Kinesiology, 1994

BSc, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Kinesiology, 1992


Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Director of the Biomechanics Laboratory,
Purdue, 2007-present

Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Director of the Biomechanics Laboratory,
Purdue, 2000-07

Lecturer, Tashkent State Economics University, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 1997

Visiting Scholar, Center for Locomotion Studies, Pennsylvania State University, 1993

Research Coordinator, Neural Control Laboratory, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, 1991-93

Research Assistant, Neural Control Laboratory, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario,


Exceptional Engagement Award of the Center for Aging and the Life Course, co-awarded to Dr. Rietdyk and Dr. Haddad, 2012

New Investigator Award Canadian Society of Biomechanics, 1998

Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Postgraduate Scholarship, University of Waterloo, 1992-96

Board of Governor's Achievement Award, University of Waterloo, 1994


International Society for Posture and Gait Research

American Society of Biomechanics

Canadian Society for Biomechanics

Falls are the number one cause of accidental death of the elderly and the third leading accidental killer among all age groups. Every 17 seconds, an older adult is treated in an emergency room and every 30 minutes an older adult dies from a fall-related injury. These startling statistics are at the heart of Shirley Rietdyk's research.

Rietdyk, associate professor of health and kinesiology, studies the interaction of neural, muscular and mechanical systems in mobility, posture and balance. Decrements in any of these systems increase the likelihood of falls. In the Biomechanics Laboratory located in Lambert Fieldhouse, Rietdyk and her research team are looking for clues as to how the nervous system incorporates visual and sensory information to coordinate muscle activity for safe, balanced movement.

Using an Optotrak motion analysis system — a set of sophisticated cameras and software that records movement — the researchers track subjects young and old, healthy and compromised. With information from infrared emitting markers placed on the subjects, they capture movement to better understand what leads to falls.

In collaboration with Jessica Huber from Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and Jeffrey Haddad from Health and Kinesiology, Rietdyk is examining what happens when a person walks and talks at the same time. A landmark study from 1997 showed that older adults who could not walk and talk at the same time — those who had to stop before answering a question — were more likely to fall within six months. The researchers are completing more complex experiments and analyses in order to better understand this relationship.

Rietdyk has been interested in balance and mobility since her undergraduate studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She set out to be a physical therapist, but a co-op experience in a research lab during her sophomore year got her hooked on biomechanics. "I loved the challenge," she says. "Every time I learned something, I uncovered new questions and I enjoyed the creativity of figuring out how to design experiments to answer those questions."

One of her goals is to inform physical therapy and rehabilitation, helping identify best practices to reduce fall risk. In a study recently funded by the National Science Foundation, Rietdyk and her colleagues, Haddad, Arvind Raman from Mechanical Engineering and Howard Zelaznik from Health and Kinesiology, are aiming to improve a decades-old rehabilitation device called a wobble board, or balance board. Their goals are to improve early detection of neuromuscular disorders and improve rehabilitation of balance-compromised populations. Among the subjects they plan to test are individuals with multiple sclerosis, in collaboration with the Department of Neurology at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

"Up to 53 percent of falls are caused by a trip, when a person's foot unexpectedly contacts an obstacle such as a curb or stair," Rietdyk notes. "Why people fail to successfully step over an obstacle that they knew was there is largely unknown. Understanding this failure and developing therapies to prevent this failure will be instrumental in decreasing the likelihood of falls."

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