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Medical Breakthroughs: Stay Mobile

Addressing arthritis, muscle weakness, nerve damage and more through technology

spinner image Medical breakthroughs

Pioneering drugs that remedy once-intractable diseases; clever products that make everyday living easier for people with injury or illness; innovative technologies that provide relief at a touch of a button — by all measures, 2017 has been a year of astounding health care advancements. Here are some of the ways medical trailblazers and researchers are creating fresh possibilities for you and your family.

spinner image Medical Breakthroughs: Staying Mobile (paralysis)
Rick Hart was able to walk again after trying a robotic exoskeleton for a research study.
Photograph by Brian Doben; Groomer: Valerie Lefort

Walking With An Exoskeleton

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Ever since he was injured in a Jet Ski explosion 12 years ago, Rick Hart has striven to stay mobile despite leg paralysis. In 2014, he strapped on a robotic exoskeleton called Indego for a research study and fulfilled a dream. “My wife, Laura, and I ate lunch in the courtyard, and for the first time we could walk across the grass together,” says Hart, 52, of Palm Harbor, Florida. Two models of battery-powered robotic exoskeletons — Indego and ReWalk — have received FDA approval. Another, the Ekso GT, got the OK in 2016 for use in rehabilitation by stroke survivors and some people with spinal cord injuries. The devices may cut the risk for wheelchair-user health complications such as digestive problems, heart disease and brittle bones. But a key appeal is social. “I can talk to people face to face,” Hart says. “I’m 5 feet 11 inches tall again.” —Sari Harrar

Digital Guidance For Physical Therapy

To help patients complete their physical therapy exercises and do them correctly, a company has created a new kind of computerized coach. Reflexion Health’s Virtual Exercise Rehabilitation Assistant, known as VERA, is an augmented-reality program that guides patients through routines prescribed by their physical therapist. On a computer screen, an avatar demonstrates each movement. Next, a motion-sensing camera captures the patient repeating the movement. If the patient’s form is wrong, VERA gives corrections in real time. Sessions are recorded for a physical therapist to view later. —Lexi Pandell


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Craig Cutler

Gaming For Dexterity

A new product aims to reduce the tedium of physical rehabilitation through gaming. Stroke patients can use the Rapael Smart Glove to play more than 45 games, each targeting a goal, such as wrist motion or finger dexterity. —Denny Watkins

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What's Ahead For Arthritis?

"For the first time in human history, we’re at a moment where we see an opportunity to nip the disease mechanism in the bud," Guy Eakin, senior vice president, scientific strategy, Arthritis Foundation, tells AARP. "A big breakthrough is medicinal signaling cell (MSC) treatments. Literature shows that injected MSCs may be able to reduce inflammation, assisting in cartilage repair." Eakin warns that "some clinics that advertise 'stem cell therapies' should be viewed as experimental treatments and may not help many patients." 

Another promising breakthrough will benefit anyone who has an ACL — anterior cruciate ligament — injury. Those with ACL injuries have a 50 percent risk for developing osteoarthritis in that knee. "We have just discovered that there is a window of a few days when therapy in the form of injectable therapeutic drugs may be possible and would dramatically reduce that risk. That’s huge for future disease prevention," Eakin said.

If everything falls into place, in five to 10 years researchers could be able to put all these new technologies and treatments together. "Say you have hip osteoarthritis. A mesh will be developed that will fit on your femur. That mesh would be impregnated with stem cells to grow cartilage perfectly customized to the shape of your bone," Eakin said. "If you develop signs of osteoarthritis down the road, we could even deliver a drug that could induce that cartilage to produce its own anti-inflammatory molecules, so you could fend off your own disease development." —Selene Yeager

Muscle Changes Key

Contrary to what experts used to think, our muscles do not drastically shrink with age, Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., scientific director, National Institute on Aging, tells AARP. "They do a little, but that doesn’t cause us to lose strength. It’s that the muscles that remain cannot generate strength because of energy-producing decline. That’s why exercise is so powerful. It is the only intervention that improves mitochondrial function. Evidence now shows that even walking 10 minutes a day has enormous benefit."

Diet is also extremely important, Ferrucci said. "You will eat 70 tons of food in your lifetime. Over years, that has an impact on your health. The Mediterranean diet — a heart-healthy way of eating that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, olive oil and fish — is the only nutritional intervention that shows clear evidence that it not only prevents cardiovascular disease but also slows the decline of mobility and prevents disability." —Selene Yeager

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Insoles for balance 

Aging, diabetes and nerve damage dull sensors on the feet that keep you oriented. People in a Harvard study who used vibrating insoles — not yet on the market — did better on balance tests. —Sari Harrar

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