By Gary Robbins The San Diego Union-Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Scientists are developing everything from mattress sensors that monitor a person's heart, to "smart" walkers that look for obstacles, to belts that deploy air bags if someone is about to fall.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
"Holy cow, this is scary!"
Ken Goble was 160 feet above the ground, walking a narrow plank. Or so it seemed.
The 69-year-old was wearing a virtual reality headset that tricked him into thinking he was up high and in danger.
He was simply crossing a lab floor at San Diego State University, where scientists were using virtual reality to gauge how stress and anxiety influence a person's gait and balance.
Researcher Harsimran Baweja stood nearby, smiling.
"We want to help people stay active and independent as they age," Baweja said as his team checked sensors on Roble's arms and legs. "If we see something, we can try to fix it. This is about quality of life and people's dignity."
It's also about the rapid rise of "senior tech."
Scientists are developing everything from mattress sensors that monitor a person's heart, to "smart" walkers that look for obstacles, to belts that deploy air bags if someone is about to fall.
Seniors with dementia can wear GPS-equipped shoes that reveal their location to loved ones.
Researchers are no longer focused only on finding ways to treat sickness and disease.
Now, they're broadly working with companies to fight the indignities of aging and help people live longer and better in their own homes.
It's called "aging in place," a nascent movement that's largely being driven by tech-savvy baby boomers who hate the stigma and reality of getting older, both for themselves and their elderly parents.
It's a message that resonates.
Tech giant Google -- a bastion of youth -- has come to realize that baby boomers might be early adopters of the self-driving cars that it's developing.
Other businesses are making it easier for people with arthritis or tremors or poor vision to wear small, specialized monitors that provide real-time tracking of their health vitals.
Such innovations are being closely watched by the nation's $3 trillion-per-year health care industry, which is faced with a large and deepening shortage of caregivers at the very moment that America's population of older residents is soaring.
The number of Americans who are 65 or older surpassed 50 million for the first time last year. Demographers predict the figure will hit 71 million by 2030 and 83 million by 2050.
The flood tide comes as people are living longer; life expectancy at birth grew by 10.5 years between 1950 and 2010. On average, people who are 65 today will live roughly 20 more years.
The Census Bureau said almost 90 percent of these people want to remain in the home of their choice as they age.
"I strongly believe that technology will change the face of aging as we have known it since times immemorial," said Dilip Jeste, director of UC San Diego's Center for Healthy Aging. "Just as presbyopia is no longer a major problem -- thanks to eye glasses -- many physical impairments of old age will cease being disabilities with the use of technology. The notion that aging means disability will be laid to rest -- and with that, the stigma of being old."
UC San Diego is heavily involved in the effort to not only preserve but also enhance quality of life during the latter years of a person's life.
The university's robotics institute is developing software for small robots that "chat" with humans, with the goal of easing the loneliness that many older people feel.
The school's Design Lab is looking at ways to make it easier for seniors to board buses. UC San Diego is even exploring the idea of building a retirement home on campus so scientists can more directly learn about the needs of the aged.
All of these technological advances aren't meant to be a panacea, and analysts warn that the quality and affordability of such products can vary greatly. But a survey of senior tech projects in San Diego County and elsewhere shows that progress is being made on many fronts.
FALL PREVENTION Time takes a toll on people.
The older we get, the more likely we are to suffer from muscle weakness, poor balance, slower reflexes, impaired vision, arthritis and cognitive problems.
Such changes don't necessarily mean that older people can't lead a full and fulfilling life. Studies show that in general, individuals grow happier and more thankful as they age.
Still, experts urge seniors and the elderly to pay attention to one particular reality of aging: The physical effects of growing older make people more likely to suffer a fall.
The National Council on Aging said 2.8 million older Americans are treated in hospital emergency rooms for falls each year, and that 800,000 of those patients are hospitalized. Falls cause or contribute to about 27,000 deaths annually, a figure roughly equivalent to the population of Imperial Beach.
Scientists and entrepreneurs are approaching the challenge from several angles. There's special interest in the sort of virtual reality research that Bawega does as director of San Diego State's Neuromechanics and Neuroplasticity Lab.
"We want to know what the brain is telling a person's muscles when they are moving," said Bawega, a neuro-muscular expert who also provides physical rehabilitation services.
"We find out by putting sensors on a person's brain and other body parts and have them experience different scenarios while they're in the immersive environment of virtual reality," he added. "The data we get will help create algorithms to predict whether a person is at high risk for having a fall."
The data also can be used to correct problems with a person's walk or balance, making falls less likely.
Ocuvera, a startup in Lincoln, Nebraska, is taking a different approach. It's using 3-D cameras and advanced software to analyze the body language of patients who are in hospital beds.
"Those movements reveal when a person is going to try to get out of bed, which is when many falls happen," said Steve Kiene, chief executive for Ocuvera. "The system alerts the nurse in time to do something about it."
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has done related work, producing WiGait, a small wall sensor that studies a person's gait to search for signs of Parkinson's disease and stroke.
In Philadelphia, the company Active Protective has developed a "smart belt" that's able to sense when a person is about to fall. Small air bags automatically deploy, offering special protection to that individual's hips. More than 300,000 older Americans fracture their hips each year, so smart belts are starting to gain attention.
IN-HOME MONITORING The aging-in-place trend is growing, but the home health care industry is struggling to keep up. There's a major shortage of professional caregivers who can make in-person visits.
Technology might ease this imbalance between demand and supply.
The San Diego-based company GreatCall markets a network of tiny sensors that can be placed in people's homes to monitor whether those folks are going about their normal activities, such as getting in and out of bed, preparing meals and using the bathroom.
The sensors look for potentially worrisome changes in a person's routines and alert off-site caregivers if such shifts occur. The technology can help caregivers manage a greater number of people, and it can give a more holistic picture of what's going on in a home.
GreatCall said it has been promoting its sensors system carefully, watching for how people feel about being passively monitored.
"We use sensors, not cameras," said David Inns, the company's chief executive. "Cameras immediately raise questions of privacy. Even putting sensors in the home can feel like a privacy (invasion) issue. In cases like that, we would talk to people about our Lively Mobile medical alert device, which can be used at home as well as out in the street. It's less intrusive. It feels like it's there to help you."