And now, a soft exoskeleton

A two-fer from Harvard’s Wyss Institute this week. In addition to developing an artificial spleen, researchers there just received a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant for an exoskeleton. What distinguishes this device from other exoskeletons we’ve written about—and makes it of likely more benefit to seniors—is that this so-called “Soft Exosuit” supports the leg muscles with flexible fabric, rather than rigid materials.

If that sounds merely like a longer version of a back support belt, what makes it worth a government grant is the embedded sensor system, which continuously measures the wearer’s position, the suit’s tension, and other factors. No doubt, given the advances in medical monitoring, later versions will be able to track vital signs and detect more detailed aspects of movement.

Indeed, Harvard promises in its press release, “the team will collaborate with clinical partners to develop a medical version of the suit that can help stroke patients, for example, who often experience a slow, inefficient gait and could greatly benefit from walking assistance.”  While the Soft Exosuit should have a promising future as both a diagnostic and an assistive device, it’s still in prototype phase.

The ReWalk exoskeleton, by contrast, has just had “the best performing IPO of the year.” Their stock has been as high as nearly $44 a share and closed today at $33.20.  We wish all involved well, and we hope the cash infusion can help the company develop their device into a less cumbersome–and less expensive–solution.



You’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll

We realize this one may stretch the definition of “assistive technology for seniors,” but with Mick Jagger now a great-grandfather, we’re going for it. If you’re still harboring fantasies of fronting a rock band—or if you already play guitar and want to improve your skills—read on.

We were recently introduced to Rocksmith 2014, the second edition of a computer game/learning software that helps both novice and experienced guitar players increase their playing speed, accuracy, and dexterity.

Yeah, sounds sort of like Guitar Hero, except instead of a guitar-shaped controller, you plug in your own, real electric guitar. The software has a library of licensed songs that Boomers will appreciate, including Mick’s own Paint It Black, and it challenges you to hit the right note, then notes, as they come at you, faster and faster.

It also includes step-by-step introductory videos that start with topics as basic as how to hold a guitar while standing. Our favorites are the arcade-style games, which turn tedious, repetitive technique drills into adrenaline rush competitions. They’re probably the single greatest boon to practicing outside of groupies and multi-million dollar label deals.

Beyond that, as novices who are still trying to figure out how to tighten a strap, we’re not really qualified to review it, so if you’re an experienced musician, we recommend this review which speaks more knowledgeably of what challenges and improvements you can expect. We can say with confidence that if you’re a guitar teacher, the games just might get your students to live up to their promises to practice.

A video review from Gamespot:



New Device for Falls Assessment

Many seniors have probably taken the “Timed Up and Go” (TUG) test, which involves rising from a chair and walking approximately 10 feet (three meters), turning and walking back, and then sitting again in the chair. According to the CDC, an older adult who takes 12 seconds or more to complete the test is at high risk for falls.

The test is so simple to administer that anyone with a stop-watch could assess the results; the downside is the measure is a relatively crude binary: will fall/won’t fall. Irish healthcare start-up Kinesis Health Technologies is now selling a device that will allow medical providers a fuller understanding of what is happening in their patient’s bodies.

Called QTUG for Quantitative Timed Up and Go, it’s a wireless sensing system that gives an objective measurement of a patient’s mobility by comparing it to the norm for persons of the same age and gender. Most importantly, the stored information could be used to compare deterioration in the patient’s own balance and gait over time.

For a patient, the only change from a standard TUG is that before you take the test, small wireless sensors are strapped to your shins. Via Bluetooth, they transmit specific details of your walk, such as shifts in weight and speed, to a tablet computer equipped with read by your medical provider.

The QTUG system. Image courtesy: Kinesis Health Technologies

The QTUG system, courtesy: Kinesis Health Technologies. Click on the image to expand.

For more information on falls and fall prevention, see the CDC’s STEADI (Stopping Elderly Accidents, Deaths & Injuries) toolkit, which has downloadable resources for medical providers that can also be of interest to seniors and their families.


AARP Ideas @50+ in San Diego THIS WEEK

Thursday through Sunday (Sept 4,5,6) AARP brings its Ideas @50+ conference to the San Diego Convention Center, infamous home of Comic-Con. It will feature tracks on Health and Wellness; Money and Work; Technology and Innovation; Travel and Lifestyle, as well as an overall theme of “Life Reimagined.” For those who can’t attend this week, you can make plans for the spring version, which will take place next year in Miami from May 14th through 16th. Yeah, you can show those spring-break kids how it’s done!

In the meantime, here’s how gospel great Mavis Staples, one of the performers AARP has lined up for the San Diego Conference, celebrated her 75th birthday:



And if you really want to overturn senior stereotypes, we recommend La Jolla’s Surf Diva surfing school. When we asked if there were a recommended upper age limit on people starting surfing lessons, they replied: “Absolutely not, it’s a great idea! If you are able to swim and are physically in a shape where you are still active and enjoying being in the ocean, everybody can get on a board.”

Senior Tech Insider will be attending this week’s conference.  If you’d like to meet, please leave word in the Comments.

Re-thinking fall prevention

The poisonous plants of the decorating world. Beautiful, but deadly.

Area Rugs, the poisonous plants of interior decoration. Like Oleander, beautiful but deadly.

We trust that you all know that if you’re concerned with fall prevention, you don’t want area rugs in your home. But even if, like Sleeping Beauty’s parents and spindles, you eliminate every area rug you can, the world is still full of curbs, ice and other risks, so your best defense is strengthening your own balance. To that end, Clive Pei, a professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the  University of Illinois in Chicago, is making seniors fall.

The idea, as explained in this AP article with optional video, is a new take on balance-training: Instead of general muscle conditioning, it lets people practice catching themselves before a fall. Participants train on a mechanized version of an area rug: a moving walkway that is programmed to slide and cause falls. Because they are wearing safety harnesses, they never fall far enough to injure themselves, but the repeated falling motion lets them continuously reinforce the instinctive movements to stop a fall. The study, located in Chicago, is currently recruiting participants.

Of course, you could just buy a cane, but yeah, we know, makes ya look old. Well, if you fear such an accessory might make you seem less than fully virile, we found (oh Internet!) one made from, er, blush, “the reproductive organ of a bull.” For the ladies, bling it on!

Simple Tech for Simple Tasks

Before there were carebots, exoskeletons and other expensive types of assistive technology, there were gadgets to help people open jars, pull up zippers and other mundane tasks that become more challenging with age. In this video,  Tina Ross of  Virginia’s Simple Comforts demonstrates a range of such devices, which should be available through local retailers or by ordering online.



GaitAid in Clinical Trial for Falls

The training device GaitAid is already being used to help improve locomotion for those with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders. Now, a clinical trial is enrolling subjects to test whether it might also help prevent falls in the elderly. According to the CDC, falls are “the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries” in older adults.

GaitAid is actually a miniature augmented reality system, created by Technion computer science professor Yoram Baram. He had seen a news report describing how Parkinson’s patients were able to walk much more naturally on tile floors, with their high contrast patterns, than on monochrome floors. With his experience developing virtual reality systems for NASA, he set about creating a simple VR system that could reproduce the effect.

The GaitAid headpiece looks more like stylish sunglasses than a clunky VR visor; it connects to a pager-sized unit whose motion sensors dynamically superimpose a black-and-white tile pattern as the patient walks along. Headphones amplify the patient’s steps, giving feedback to re-enforce a proper a proper rhythm.

Currently, GaitAid, available for $1995 online, is being used by patients to practice stride length and rhythm in order to restore a more normal walking pattern and reduce “freezing,” a Parkinson’s condition in which the legs don’t respond to the brain’s signal to walk.

Now, Technion and Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City have teamed up to determine whether GaitAid might also help in fall prevention. The trial is extremely simple: Participants will be asked to walk without aid, then walk using GaitAid, and then asked to walk again, unaided. Researchers will evaluate whether the brief time using GaitAid made a discernible, helpful difference.

Information on participating in the trial can be found here.


Exoskeletons for Seniors

As we noted in a previous post, current exoskeletons are problematic because they require the use of crutches for balance. Their target customer appears to be a young-to-middle-aged person who lost lower limb function through an athletic or war-related injury.

imagesBy contrast, the European Union’s Ambient Assisted Living Program has funded research on exoskeletons specifically designed for seniors. Their criteria for successful development of “Exo-legs,” include:

  • Specialised “hands-free” locomotion support/assistance to allow elderly persons to perform their normal, wide-ranging daily activities in an independent manner.
  • Indoor mobility: moving freely within confined spaces giving considerable added value over wheelchairs, be able to perform stand-sit/sit-stand manoeuvres, climb/descend stairs, step over objects, quiet standing, straight walking, turning for centimetric/metric mobility
  • Outdoor mobility: walking/turning on uneven/unstructured surfaces/soft ground, avoiding traffic, crossing roads, taking public transport (buses, trains) to go to rural/distant places, opening/closing doors, using escalators for hectometric/kilometric mobility
  • Cognitive support: provide information/advice to allow decision making when the elderly person has become lost or confused

The project is due to conclude in 2015.



X-treme Wheelchairs

One of the greatest fears of aging is immobility. But a new generation of demanding wheelchair athletes is pushing hard at those limits. Competitive skateboarder Robert Thompkins decided that no mere wheelchair was going to keep him from his passion.

He’s allied with wheelchair technology pioneers Colours Wheelchairs, known for breakthrough lightweight chairs with independent suspension, to develop a prototype wheelchair for chairskating, an extreme sport that is every bit as high-flying crazy as board skating.

As it turns out, one of Thompkins’s biggest challenges is regulations that limit his local skateboard park to skateboards only, another example of older, well-intentioned laws lagging behind current technological realities.





Kick a Ball to Kick Aging?

Danish researchers are reporting a way to age better that involves only two pieces of low-tech equipment: sneakers and a soccer ball.

According to a press release from the University of Copenhagen about a test group of men aged 63 to 75 , “After only 4 months of twice-weekly 1-hour training sessions, the men achieved marked improvements in maximum oxygen uptake, muscle function and bone mineralization.”

But looking a little deeper, they split 26 men into three groups, so that means this result is based on nine people who played soccer versus nine who performed strength training and eight who were inactive.

Although we have no doubt that soccer can be good for the heart and lungs, based on that small sample set and relatively brief exposure, we are extremely skeptical about the game’s effect on the joints of older soccer players.

The answer may be, as it so often is, all things in moderation. An earlier study from Cork University Hospital in Ireland advised: “Animal and human studies have shown no evidence of increased risk of hip or knee OA [osteoarthritis] with moderate exercise and in the absence of traumatic injury, sporting activity has a protective effect…However, higher rates of hip OA occur in contact sports than in age-matched controls, with the highest rate in professional players. Soccer players with torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL) are more likely to develop knee OA than those with intact ACL.”

We suggest proceeding at your own risk. In a description that would please only Tony Soprano, one former player described soccer as: “A sport where you can’t be afraid to break someone’s shin.”



We’ll stick to Yoga, thanks.