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Winter/Spring 2004 Vol. 4 No. 1

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©Stockbyte Using Science to Aid Seniors

New Technologies Can Ease Challenges of Advanced Age

Your gray hair is showing, America. The size of the nation's elderly population grows each year. And millions of baby boomers are now contemplating retirement and how their lives will differ in old age.

Senior citizens have attracted intense interest in the scientific and engineering communities, which have sought innovative ways to apply technology to accommodate physical and mental changes that often mark aging. The goal is to develop devices that can assist older adults with everyday tasks and activities, improving their quality of life and supporting independent living. Although some products are already on the market, more research is needed to determine which potential applications would best fit the needs of older people, says a new report from the National Research Council.

The next stage of research needs a stronger focus on collaborative projects among experts in the fields of aging, user-friendly design, and engineering. In addition, it must take into account the specific needs of older adults when it comes to communication, employment, health, education, housing, and transportation, the report says. Policy-makers and researchers also should explore effective approaches to get useful products quickly to market.


The report, which stems from a workshop held last year at the Academies, looks at several aging-related technologies that have moved from the lab to assembly lines, or are close to doing so. For instance, computer systems have been developed to allow people with severe motor impairments -- such as those who have suffered strokes -- to operate computers with their eyes. Tracking systems now available can help people locate lost objects within their homes. Mobile communication and computing devices, known as MCCDs, can combine features currently available in cell phones and personal digital assistants, plus run an increasingly sophisticated range of software. In the future, MCCDs will have the power to provide geographical cues and other information from global positioning systems to make up for users' memory lapses while traveling. And some of these gadgets will be able to transmit data from medical sensors worn on a person's body to remote monitors, providing caregivers and older adults themselves with a stream of vital information in real time.

But challenges remain in the development and use of innovative devices, the report notes. Communication technologies traditionally have been designed by young engineers targeting young consumers. Also, issues of data privacy need to be tackled.

The report calls on the National Institute on Aging to support research aimed at designing useful technologies for this population. NIA also should back studies that investigate how aging affects the quality of life under natural conditions -- not solely studies of people in tightly controlled laboratory tests. Furthermore, NIA should support long-term research on how older people's interactions with new technologies change over time.   -- Vanee Vines

Technology for Adaptive Aging: Report and Papers. Steering Committee for the Workshop on Technology for Adaptive Aging, Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2004, 320 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09116-0, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $49.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The steering committee was chaired by Richard W. Pew, principal scientist, BBN Technologies, Cambridge, Mass. The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences