“Tango belt” equipped with sensors and air bags to predict and respond to falls.”

For seniors, the biggest threat to their health often comes in the form of a fall. That could lead to a broken hip or elbow, months of rehab or, for many, an overall decline. Twenty percent of those seniors who break a hip die within a year of the injury. This fear keeps many from taking walks or exercising.

Now a trauma surgeon and a business executive have come up with a way to protect seniors – and it’s one many people already use on a daily basis: airbags.

Their company, Fort Washington, Pa.-based ActiveProtective, has designed a lightweight belt, called Tango, equipped with airbags and a sensor that can predict when a senior is about to fall. The smart belt was programmed based on months of beta testing, tracking the natural movements of older adults and using machine learning to analyze the patterns.

 “Picture it like two baseball gloves that come out,” said Drew Lakatos, the company’s chief executive officer and a cofounder. The airbags cover the “at-risk anatomy,” he said, and curve under the hip before impact.

Surgeon Robert Buckman came up with the idea for a belt, because he was disturbed by the number of older patients he treated for falls, He patented it and mentioned it to Lakatos at a 2005 Christmas party. Other hip-protection devices on the market include padded undergarments and cushioned hip protectors.

Tango Belt (Courtesy of Active Protective)

They founded ActiveProtective in 2012, but didn’t start developing the belt until 3D motion sensors became cheaper and cold-gas inflators became available a couple years later, Lakatos said.

The first belts are coming off the production line now. Residents of several national senior care providers have been wearing pilot belts for about 22 months.

A study of wearers at a short-term rehab center during a pilot test found that they walked 50 percent farther, and in a survey assessing seniors’ fear of falling, users reported a higher clinical rating of confidence as their fear decreased.

On April 10, the company won first place in ACTAI Global’s Extreme Tech Challenge, a worldwide competition of startups.

Lakatos sees big growth potential in the aging industry.

“The things that used to kill us in our 50s and 60s no longer kills us so now we’re looking into the fragility piece,” he said. “For us to live a healthy, happy, inexpensive life, you have to stay upright and mobile. The longer we can do that, the better.”