Sensing the future: Gerontologist foresees technology's possibilities

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Lake Fong/Post-Gazette
Dr. Neil Resnick is chief of Pitt's Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology and director of the Institute on Aging.
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If Dr. Neil M. Resnick's predictions pan out, technological advances could stem future demand for nursing homes.

At least that is his hope, given that improved mobility, independence and ability to remain safely at home improve long-term happiness and even life span for the aged.

All of which suggests that aging baby boomers someday will live like the Jetsons, with technology keeping track of their health and providing ready assistance in everyday life, including helping them to drive and shop.

Dr. Resnick, chief of University of Pittsburgh's Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology and director of Pitt's Institute on Aging, outlined technological ideas, many in the works in his own departments, to allow older people to stay home longer without risking their health and safety.

Consider technology that already improves heart function.

The left ventricle assist device, designed to bolster heart function in patients awaiting a heart transplant, does more than expected. The LVADs, a mechanical pump, not only assists the heart, but gives damaged parts a chance to rest and regenerate strength, often making heart transplants unnecessary.

Other devices synchronize the right and left ventricles to help prevent heart failure. An implanted defibrillator, already available and gaining in usage, can be implanted in the chest to save lives by shocking the heart back into rhythm during a cardiac arrest.

In time, Dr. Resnick said, few aspects of life will go unaffected by robotics, sensors, computers and other technological devices that will make life simpler for the infirm and elderly.

To eliminate the effects of confusion and forgetfulness, for example, technology already can serve as "cognitive coach" to help people take their medications in correct doses and on time, he said.

Already pill bottles exist whose caps have alarms and lights to alert people when to take their medications.

Patients someday will own a high-tech pill dispenser that holds three-month supplies and operates like a computerized bubble-gum machine. It will be akin to having an automated pharmacist with lights and alarms to alert the person when it is time to take medication. Pills will be dispensed in right quantities at exact times.

"It will ring a bell and flash green and dispense pills like bubble gum down a shoot," Dr. Resnick said.

Other technologies on the drawing board would allow doctors to adjust prescription-drug doses via a cell phone so the person does not need as many doctor's appointments.

But that could require even more technology to execute correctly. The patient could be wired with various monitors to measure body functions.

It monitors feeding a computer indicate a change in body function, be it blood pressure, asthma or respiration, cholesterol, blood thinness, blood glucose and weight, the doctor will receive regular updates. The doctor then can call the patient's pill dispenser with an adjusted dosage, which will begin immediately to dispense more precise doses.

With medicines fine-tuned, computerized sensors or motion detectors in each room of the house could track people as they amble room to room and establish normal trends of motion. When those trends change or are disrupted, possibly due to illness or injury, the system would alert family, friends, doctors or emergency personnel to check on the person.

"The patient gets a huge amount of relief," Dr. Resnick said. "If they have a stroke or are unconscious, they will be discovered right away."

Companies could provide such surveillance services, much the way security companies now operate, to monitor a person's motions and dispatch assistance if patterns change.

Dr. Resnick said the technology already is available for such systems and could be up and running in a year: "This is what people need, and it makes sense to me," he said.

Civilization is years removed from having apron-wearing robots, like the Jetsons' Rosie, to take care of us, do housework, cook meals and serve as companions. But robotic systems of lesser scope and scale soon will play key roles in everyday life and help us drive and shop.

Macular degeneration and diabetes often leave older people with impaired vision that can affect shopping and driving.

Futuristic shopping trips could involve a device that reads radio-frequency identification, or RFIDs, that soon will replace bar codes on products. They will provide a means for people not only to find the right products in the store, but also provide ingredients, health data and the price. Such devices could be programmed to lead a person down each grocery aisle to exact locations of the products.

Ideally robotic vehicles that drive themselves would provide transportation for elderly folks who have lost their ability to navigate roadways. Such robotic vehicles already are in development, as the Tartan Racing Team at Carnegie Mellon University has proven. In an upcoming competition, the team's robotic car will attempt to travel, without human assistance, through a city environment while avoiding other traffic, abiding by signals and staying in the right lane, among other challenges.

Until such cars reach the market, other technologies could assist older people with driving skills. For example, Dr. Resnick said, the elderly have problems making left turns because they cannot accurately judge the speed of approaching vehicles in intersections. So why not develop systems that use sensors and radar to judge the speed of oncoming traffic and alert the driver when there is sufficient time to make a left turn, or sound warnings if the driver is turning too soon.

Other technology in the works can judge distance between vehicles and alert drivers when they are too close to other vehicles. Lexus already provides technology to park a car in tight places. Such technology could help older drivers park and drive more safely and reduce or eliminate accidents.

For many of these ideas, the only thing lacking is a company interested in developing and marketing such products.

"None of this is out there yet," Dr. Resnick said of the technology. "But I can't think of a single thing in life that technology cannot make fundamental improvements to make products and people more functional."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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