It's always a pleasure to attend a conference where you not only learn about cool innovations helping society, but also pick up a few tips for yourself. So it was for me, last week, when I attended the Healthy Ageing Catalyst Awards Showcase at Zinc.
Zinc is a London-based incubator that seeks to solve the world's most pressing social problems at scale. This particular set of awards supports products and services that add five more years of high quality to later life. They form part of the UKRI Healthy Ageing Challenge, as well as the Healthy Longevity Global Grand Challenge, a worldwide movement to improve physical, mental, and social well-being for people as they age.
Here are a few healthy ageing innovations that particularly caught my eye:
1. Driver Safety. If you've ever accompanied someone into later life, you'll know that the very last thing they wish to give up is driving. For older adults, driving represents independence and self-reliance. It also allows for socialization and stimulation outside of the home. So being told that you can no longer drive delivers a huge blow to mental well-being in later life. Currently, driver fitness is assessed through a cognitive test administered inside a doctor's office. Doctors never actually see their patients drive. New research out of Sheffield University is seeking to change that. Through a longitudinal investigation using advanced telematics (GPS), the research uses on-road driving monitoring equipment to identify predictive biomarkers in younger drivers that point to risks for older drivers. Finding new means to help evaluate fitness to drive that are accurate, reflect real world driving conditions and are scalable is crucial if we are to support choice, independence and community access for older drivers, while maintaining road safety.
2. Lower limb movement. We all understand the health benefits of exercise as get older. But those of us of a certain age (ahem!) also know that we don't move quite so well as we once did. In particular, multi-directional movement — the sort required for sports like badminton or tennis — becomes harder as you get older. (Take it from me. I recently tried to do a high intensity interval training (HIIT) class and could barely walk for weeks.) To tackle this problem, researchers at Exeter University have created a state-of-the-art "super sports plate." This is a force-sensitive floor with cameras and virtual reality which monitors sports movements such as stopping, twisting, jumping and turning and their impact on the load borne by the knee and ankle joints of an older population. (It's always about the knee, isn't it?) The ultimate goal is to work with industry to design a bespoke sports shoe with appropriate cushioning and grip that enables greater knee flexion for an older demographic. To which I say, bring it on!
3. Muscle Health. As long as we're looking at footwear, let's also look at socks! As we age, our muscles begin to atrophy. The technical term for this is Sarcopenia. It's one of the principle unaddressed medical challenges in older adults, affecting 10% of adults over 60 worldwide. Left untreated, sarcopenia leads to greater risks of falls, hospitalisations, quality of life issues and soaring medical costs. Much like blood pressure, however, there is no objective, reliable method for measuring muscle health and evaluating different treatments. Researchers at Newcastle University are thus developing a "smart garment sock" with built-in sensors that can provide an accurate picture of muscle health. Signals are sent to a computer or smartphone and MRI imaging is used to look inside the muscle. The goal is to create an affordable and non-invasive product that can easily measure muscle health outside of a clinical setting.
4. Arts and Dementia. There is an expanding body of work pointing to the health-enhancing benefits of the arts for older people. These benefits — whether cognitive, emotional, and/or social — have been particularly powerful for people suffering from dementia, assisting with self-esteem, connectivity and agency. To date, however, there's been very little research on how to facilitate creative interactions with dementia patients and their carers so as to enable them to get the most out of this type of intervention. By recording social participation in creative arts settings, researchers at Bangor University are trying to identify when it's best to involve the carer in creative activities, and when it's preferable to encourage the patient to work on their own. The goal is to create a set of online and face-to-face training materials for creative arts facilitators so as to foster dementia-supportive communities.
5. Social Care in the Developing World. There are many more people over 65 living in the global South than live in the global North. But many countries in the developing world lack the necessary safety nets: social care is both unregulated by the state and unaccountable to its users. Researchers at the University of East Anglia — together with collaborators in Argentina — have developed an online platform for sharing information about the quality of services in residential care homes in the city of La Plata, Argentina. The site establishes a set of service quality principles and also provides updated information about care homes. Most importantly, service users can provide feedback about providers, and providers are removed from the site if complaints are confirmed. The research team is now scaling this intervention to other cities in Argentina and Brazil, adapting the user portal to local conditions. Over time, the goal is to create a trusted, not-for-profit system across the global South that can monitor elder abuse, rending the elderly in institutional settings less vulnerable.
About the Author
Delia Lloyd is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. A seasoned writer and editor, she worked for a decade in radio, print and online journalism. Her reporting and commentary have been featured on outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The BBC World Service.
Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute
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