Cutting-Edge Tech to Change Older Lives Now
From robotic clothing that makes walking easier to a visor that diagnoses stroke
Robotic underwear improves strength and mobility
Donna McKinney loved to walk, but every time she did, her back hurt. Luckily, she lives in Skyline, a Seattle retirement community where residents can try an undergarment with robotic muscles that can augment core strength by about 25 percent. Made by a company called Seismic, each robotic garment is customized to fit the individual's lifestyle. Recently, McKinney wore one on a walk around her hometown, on Bainbridge Island. “My back didn't hurt at all, and I think we covered more than 4 miles,” she says.
Seismic partnered with the nonprofit Transforming Age to open its first boutique in Seattle last fall — serving the nonprofit's employees, residents of communities such as Skyline, and companies interested in employee health and wellness programs. Eligible members can lease garments for $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the package.
A new A-fib tracker tracks data 24/7
An irregular heartbeat is a common result of aging. “At age 50, only about a half of 1 percent of folks have the sustained irregularity we call atrial fibrillation,” says Joshua Yamamoto, a Washington, D.C., cardiologist. “But by age 80, that number is nearly 40 percent.” Irregular heartbeats are a common cause of strokes, yet few people know their risk.
Detecting atrial fibrillation has gotten much easier since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an implantable heart monitor in 2017; a newer model was launched this year. The size of a paper clip, Abbott's Confirm Rx Insertable Cardiac Monitor is placed under the skin during an outpatient procedure. It records 24 hours a day and sends data to your doctor through a smartphone app, so he or she can track your heart rate. With better feedback and monitoring, physicians can direct patients to the best possible medication.
Mammography that puts the patient in charge
Since mammography went into wide use in the 1980s, the technology has helped reduce breast cancer mortality by 40 percent. In addition, it has squashed the heck out of women's breasts. GE Healthcare's new Senographe Pristina mammography machine with Dueta remote control may improve both situations. The system allows patients to control the compression of their own breasts, which can result in clearer pictures with less stress. Since the Dueta was introduced in 2017, the system has spread to imaging centers and hospitals in several states, with one study showing that 91 percent of patients gave themselves equal or greater compression over the previous year's scan, improving the clarity of the images. “Women are a lot more tolerant of increasing the pressure if they feel they're in control of the system,” notes Joseph P. Russo, head of women's imaging at St. Luke's University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which uses the technology.
Lenses that improve sleep and cognition
Ophthalmologists sometimes implant blue-light-blocking lenses during cataract surgery as a way to prevent retinal damage. But as doctors have begun to realize how powerfully light affects brain function, some have wondered whether this blocking may have negative effects. A new study of 13 people who underwent surgery for cataracts found that clear UV-blocking lenses that allow blue light to enter resulted in better sleep and cognitive abilities than that offered by other types of lenses. Clear lenses increased slow-wave sleep time by roughly 50 percent and boosted performance on sustained attention tests by an average of 70 percent, compared with amber lenses that block part of the blue light. Additional research is needed.
A pill vibrates to better treat GI problems
As it moves through the GI tract, the experimental Vibrant capsule vibrates, using a mechanism similar to the buzzers restaurants hand out to let you know that your table is ready. The agitation induces natural muscular waves known as peristalsis, moving stool through the body without chemical action. “We expect to treat chronic constipation of all kinds because this should really help things move,” says Satish Rao, a gastroenterologist at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.
A robot dog offers comfort for dementia sufferers
Tom Stevens’ mother, Nancy, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at age 76 but was resistant to accepting at-home care. She even trained her 2-year-old goldendoodle to growl anytime a caregiver entered the room.
Luckily, Stevens’ background was in technology and computer science. He started researching Alzheimer's and learned that emotional attachment to objects such as stuffed animals could alleviate some behavioral and psychological symptoms. To create a stuffed animal worthy of such a task, he partnered with Jim Henson's Creature Shop to build what would eventually become Jennie — a robot, modeled on a 10-week-old Labrador puppy, that moves like a real dog in response to touch and to voice commands. “We have seven motors in the neck alone, which gives the robot dog the ability to do very fine expression,” Stevens notes. Available next summer, the robot will cost about $450.
A visor that can diagnose stroke types
When it comes to treating a stroke, time is critical. Yet effective treatment requires that doctors understand which type of stroke the patient is experiencing. Forty percent of stroke deaths are caused by hemorrhagic strokes, during which blood escapes from a ruptured vessel in the brain. A newly developed visor, when strapped to a patient's head, can detect hemorrhagic strokes by using low-energy-frequency waves. The device's accuracy rate is 92 percent, cutting time to treatment. These visors are expected to be available to medical professionals next year.
Jacqueline Detwiler, the former articles editor of Popular Mechanics, has a master's degree in neuroscience. Sari Harrar is a contributing editor for AARP the Magazine.