It almost sounds like a cruel joke. Researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago are tripping senior citizens for science. And the seniors are thanking them for it.

Falls are the leading cause of injury among the senior set, resulting in costs of up to $30 billion each year in hospital visits. Not to mention the resulting poor health and disabilities that plague many seniors after a fall.

The conventional method for preventing falls is preventative exercises that boost strength and improve balance, but physical therapist Clive Pai is leading research on a new method of fall prevention that he calls a "vaccine against falls."

Pai and his team work with senior citizens using computerized treadmills that simulate falls — similar to slipping on a banana peel. Don't worry, the seniors are strapped into harnesses suspended from the ceiling to prevent injury. But by simulating the fall in a controlled environment, Pai believes it teaches the body subconsciously how to handle a fall to prevent injury in real-life incidents.

Pai has a $1 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging to study and develop the treadmill system. He is hoping in this initial phase of the research to enroll 300 participants over the next five years of the study.

Pai's preliminary research has found that even just one session of tripping can help older adults learn how to catch themselves during falls — knowledge that could prevent injury outside the lab by up to 50 percent, even one year after seniors participated in the research.

"This is all implicit learning. We don't give any instruction. They don't have to be motivated — they're naturally motivated because they don't want to be on the floor," said Pai in an interview with USA Today.

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Tripping seniors for science?
It's no joke. Researchers are teaching seniors how to fall without injury using simulated tripping in the laboratory.