Older and Wiser: U.Va. Engineers Strive to Solve Problems of the Aged

June 17, 2008 — Every stage of life brings new challenges. The older we get, the more these mysterious challenges seem to intensify.

Unraveling these age-related mysteries is a daunting task, but several faculty members at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science are working with the U.Va. Institute on Aging to find potentially revolutionary remedies to health- and safety-related problems of the aged.

With the rapidly increasing size of the elderly population, there is a great sense of urgency to discover solutions. For instance, Richard Kent, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, estimates that the segment of population that drives cars is aging one month per year. "That's really, really fast," he said.

This matters because technical advances in safety devices can help older drivers. Right now, Kent is re-designing automobile seatbelt retractors to minimize crash-induced injuries to this population. More than half of the accident-related injuries sustained by elderly drivers affect the chest area, where frail rib cages are vulnerable to the pressure of the cross-chest seatbelt. To reduce these injuries, Kent redesigned the seatbelt spool retractors to have optimized restraint parameters to protect elderly passengers.  

Bringing any measure of predictability, safety and control into the lives of the elderly is a big achievement. Too often, medical patients feel "out of the loop," explained John Lach, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. 

Lach and BP America Professor of Computer Science John Stankovic are using their ingenuity and training to explore the ways bio-information sensors can meet health needs of older people.

Lach explains that his work focuses on designing wireless wearable sensor nodes that collect data about the wearer. Currently, the external nodes are the size of a box of matches; Lach's goal is Band-Aid-sized nodes.
This form of data collection can provide physicians with invaluable information regarding tremors and other aspects of a patient's condition; previously, this information was measurable only by patient self-report.
Stankovic's interest in tracking patient information through real-time external sensors may lead to a system that sends medical data via cell phones to enable more rapid diagnoses. 

The sensors, though unobtrusive, "do all the work," Stankovic says.

Their potential benefits include providing greater information access, transmission and control to patients and family members. He also hopes they will enable caregivers to encourage more positive, "life-enhancing" social interactions amongst patients by enabling caregivers to better track social behaviors.

Indeed, all of these programs focus on improving and maintaining quality of life. As the Institute on Aging grows with the endeavors of engineers like Lach, Kent and Stankovic, all of us stand to benefit from its collective wisdom.

— By Lynn Ramsson