Science-y Bits: March 19th, 2016

Stairway to Heaven?

AdobeStock_82749606.jpegContrary to popular belief, Home Sweet Home is a dangerous place filled with many imperceptible and underappreciated hazards–such as the staircase. Designed more than two thousand years ago, stairs remain a major source of accidents, and that rate has quadrupled in the last twenty years resulting in one million stair-related accidents and 12,000 deaths in the United States each year, many of these in people over the age of sixty-five.

According to John Templer, formerly the Regents’ Professor of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology (known for his expertise on treaders, handrails and risers), “When people fall they think it’s their fault,…But, more often than not, the design and condition of the stairs are to blame.” (Source: The Slippery Science of Stairs)  According to Jake Pauls, a safety specialist with a Maryland consulting firm, stair accidents cost the United States $10 billion to $12 billion in terms of health care, lost wages and short- and long-term disability  each year. (Source: LA Times)

Stair-related accidents are impacted by any of the following:

Environmental Issues

  • poor lighting over stairs
  • loose carpet or treader issues
  • mats at top or bottom of stairs
  • lack of or poorly installed railings
  • carpet patterns which impact visual perception

Personal Issues

  • decreased balance
  • changes in gait
  • illness
  • impaired vison
  • medication side effects
  • reduced physical strength

Behavioral Issues

  • running up or down the stairs
  • distractions, such as texting
  • not holding the railing
  • carrying objects
  • objects left on stairs
  • using cleaning equipment on stairs
  • drinking alcohol
  • use of bifocals or multifocal lenses
An unfortunate leg, Sunday March 13th, 2016

For those of you who know me personally, you know my husband fell on the last step of our stairs (going downstairs, which is the most common way accidents occur on the stairs). The light in the area was poor at the time he fell, and though he had been holding the hand railing, he fell on the final step which dropped him four feet down to the hardwood floor resulting in break above his femur, a crushed patella, and a long and painful surgery. He was happy, healthy, sober, and focusing on walking when he fell and though he is recovering well at the moment, he is still shocked at the unlikely occurrence and by the extent of his injuries. In a way, he is lucky he fell where he did because he is alive to tell the tale.

I have been using the handrail ever since I was pregnant with my now-eighteen-year-old son, having learned that accidents on the stairs are not uncommon in pregnant women. Today, I am going slower than ever, carrying less, and thinking of how to install better handrails on both sides of the stairs which are recommended for greater safety. For more stair-related facts, watch this short video here:

Tempting as it is to abandon the stairs as much as possible, I just read the results of a new study in the journal Neurobiology of Aging. Led by Jason Steffener, a scientist at Concordia University, the study shows that the more flights of stairs a person climbs, and the more years of school a person completes, the “younger” their brain appears to be. In a study of 331 healthy adults ranging in age from 19 to 79,  they found that participants decreased their brain age by 0.58 years per flight of stairs used as long as they took the stairs on a daily basis (Science Daily, 3/16).

Audios Amigo?

I’ve been a fan of audiobooks ever since my mother volunteered to record books for the blind when she was a young woman. Not surprisingly, with the advent of smartphones and the capability of storing whole books on handheld devices, the market for audiobooks has soared.  When my son was young, he listened to audiobooks when I was doing chores and couldn’t read to him, and there is strong evidence that audiobooks support the growth of language arts skills and literacy in kids of all ages. For a fascinating look at many of the benefits of audiobooks from various perspectives, check out this report by librarians and teachers working with youth.


Some people have questioned if reading books and listening to books are equally beneficial,  and a few studies lend strong support to the fact that the benefits are remarkably similar. Apparently, listening is as good as reading in terms of comprehension, but new data from the University of Ontario suggests that the very qualities which make audiobooks so useful (that they permit multitasking) may be responsible for an increased tendency for the mind to wander. In a study of 235 people who read the same short excerpt, either reading silently, reading aloud, or listening to a reading, those who tended to remember the most and have their minds wander the least were (in ranked order of performance):

  1. Those who read aloud
  2. Those who read silently
  3. Those who listened to a book.

Daniel Smilek, one of the study’s collaborators, draws a link between the amount of physical activity produced by a reading a book and its grasp on a reader’s mind, saying, “The way we’re thinking about it is that the more your body’s involved in the task, the less likely you are to be disengaged and mind-wander.” (Source: Fast Company) Personally, I use audiobooks to elevate mundane activities like ranch chores and house cleaning, as well as when driving on lonely roads at night or exercising at the gym. I’ve found them enormously helpful in times of worry as a way to distract my mind and as a gentle source of thought-provoking material. In fact, the Sunday my husband broke his leg, I was listening to Charles Duhigg’s new book, Smarter, Faster, Better, and had just covered the section on why perceptions of control are so critical in personal motivation. As a result, when bad news hit, I was able to circumvent sustained shock and overwhelm and choose effective responses and actions.

Bear in wheelchair




8 Replies to “Science-y Bits: March 19th, 2016”

  1. I have successfully managed to avoid all stairs for over 25 years but still managed to break my femur this year. ;( I have sympathy pains for your husband, especially seeing his x-ray.

    Whenever I read of studies which show a link between brain performance or life expectancy related to a physical activity I am unable to perform, the tiny voice in my head says, ‘Yes – and those of us who can’t walk/run/climb steps (insert physical activity here) are screwed!’ More are more people are living longer with reduced mobility and eventually, people will have to account for the fact that we want to be healthy too.

    As for audiobooks – I listen regularly. But, if it is a book I need/want to remember, with details and facts, I need to be in a quiet environment. Those aren’t the books to listen to in rush hour traffic.

  2. Audio books are my travel companions on long car trips. Hours and miles speed by happily with the drama of a book. I’ve hooked my middle son on Agatha Christie mysteries. We can’t make a long drive to California without a stack of audio books from the library.

    I am so sorry your husband broke his femur, but the patella? That is an awkward break at any age. 🙁

    1. Oh, Agatha Christie would be great. Thanks for that idea. As for my husband, he is healing well and getting bored, always a good sign. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. The description of your husband’s injuries is making me cringe. How awful for him. I hope he heals well and quickly. My mother had a terrible fall on the stairs at home a few years ago and smashed her elbow. She wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary either. It just happened. Luckily it healed very well, helped by the fact that she did her physiotherapy exercises diligently.

    We enjoy audio books when we are on a road trip. They help to pass the time.

    1. Yes, it’s strange that we think of the stairs as something harmless. In fact, I know I used to think they were like a piece of gym equipment and run up and down them many times taking three steps per bound. When I went to research this piece I was shocked at how dangerous they actually were. Your mom is a very lucky woman and diligence is certainly the way to go when it comes to breaks. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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