University of Missouri researchers have been working on technology to help older adults for some time. Previous studies have employed video game technology and web cameras to detect health changes in patients.
By placing sensors in the home, medical professionals will have the ability to capture early warning signs and changes before the patient even recognizes a problem.
Using Radar for Fall Prevention
"The radar enhances our ability to monitor walking speed and determine if a senior has a fall risk; the bed sensors provide data on heart rate, respiration rate and overall cardiac activity when a senior is sleeping. Both sensors are non-invasive and don't require seniors to wear monitoring devices,” said Marjorie Skubic, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the MU College of Engineering, and director of MU's Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology.
The radar sensors were used to monitor the walking speed of residents in a housing complex for the elderly for two years. The radar devices were concealed in a wooden box and placed in the living room of each senior resident. Residents were also given monthly assessments by professionals to establish whether they were at risk for potential falls. The team then compared the data collected from the radar with the reports from the doctors.
"Before using radar, we were able to estimate an individual's walking speed and have an idea of their health status," said Dominic Ho, co-author and professor of electrical and computer engineering in the MU College of Engineering. "Now we have data that definitely shows how declines in walking speed can determine the risk for falls."
Bed Sensors Monitor Vital Signs
The team also developed a bed sensor that could continuously monitor heart rate, respiration rate and overall cardiac activity. The bed sensors are composed of a hydraulic transducer, or a flexible tube of water. The transducers, placed under patients’ mattresses, measured the mechanical effect of the blood flowing through the body as a result of the heart beating.
"Heart disease is a major cause of death for both men and women," said Skubic. "Having a sensor continuously monitoring heart rate provides a significant benefit for older adults. The bed sensors also allow us to collect data on sleeping patterns—when people are in bed, how often they are in bed and how long they are in bed. Similar to walking speed, sleep patterns can detect early signs of illness."
Both studies revealed that non-invasive systems could help detect early signs of illness. Skubic and the team are now working to investigate other sensors that can further improve this kind of early detection so that health problems can be addressed while they are still small and manageable.