This $800 belt has airbags to protect your hips
Unfortunately, people are unlikely to use it
Falls are an enormous problem for the elderly — and one company believes the solution is an $800 belt with airbags. Hip’Air from Helite looks like an overstuffed belt, only with sensors inside that can tell when you’re about to fall, allegedly within 0.2 seconds. Then, two airbags inflate right above your hips to absorb the impact.
It’s not surprising that a company that makes motorcycle airbag vests would believe that their technology will also work for other types of falls. Uninflated, the HipAir is surprisingly light and has a plastic buckle on the front; inside is an inflator and a sensor. Arrows tell you which way to wear the belt, and it beeps if you put it on the wrong way. It’s not uncomfortable, but it’s not invisible either, and it would be obvious under or above almost all clothing.
A Verge reporter tried the device and, as promised, the airbags did inflate in time. Once it inflates, the airbags are huge, like wearing a life preserver. Hip’Air claims it absorbs 90 percent of the impact from a regular fall, whereas a regular hip protector (which is more like padded underwear than a belt) supposedly only absorbs 10 percent of the impact. Of course, this 90 percent claim is theoretical because you can’t order elderly people to wear your device and then fall, and the technology is too new for a clinical trial anyway.
The Hip’Air is trying to a solve a very serious problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the number one cause of injuries and deaths from injury for older Americans. In 2014, according to a CDC report, older Americans had 29 million falls, costing over $30 billion in Medicare costs. And the Baby Boomers, are aging quickly: the number of Americans over 65 will double by 2060, according to a 2016 report by the Population Research Bureau.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best solution. The biggest problems are not technological, but social. First, the elderly do not want to wear hip protectors. One Cochrane review of the hip protectors — the gold standard when it comes to evaluating health studies — concludes that hip protectors can reduce the risk of fractures. They don’t make people fall more often, though they may slightly increase the risk of pelvic fractures. But people won’t use them, and that’s a problem that Hip’Air hasn’t solved. The founders acknowledge that this is the biggest obstacle, and they say that people in retirement homes or caregivers could essentially force someone to use them. That’s easier said than done.
Second, Hip’Air costs about $800, and the company isn’t working with insurance companies. (For comparison, standard hip protectors are about $50.) The vast majority of people simply will not be able to afford the belt. Hip’Air will be available for pre-orders in March, starting in France, but don’t count on this to be the most practical or accessible solution to this widespread problem.