News Feature | June 23, 2016

Research Finds Effectiveness Of Radar And Bed Sensors To Help Keep Seniors Safe

Christine Kern

By Christine Kern, contributing writer


Monitoring technology helps health providers detect problems early.

Two new mHealth programs funded by the National Science Foundation and recently profiled in the Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Smart Environments are part of a decade-long initiative by the University of Missouri to use technology to help seniors age in place. The new projects are using two different types of mobility sensors in order to monitor elderly patients for tending health concerns.

Remote Patient Monitoring has already proven successful at managing patients with chronic conditions to help reduce readmission and complex treatments. Past Tiger Place projects have used gaming technology and video cameras to help detect changes in patterns that could indicate a pending health concern. The new studies are examining how using radar to monitor walking speed and utilizing bed sensors to track heart health are helping to keep older adults healthier and proactively stave off serious issues.

“In-home sensors have the ability to capture early signs of health changes before older adults recognize problems themselves,” Marjorie Skubic, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the MU College of Engineering and director of MU’s Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology, stated in a press release. “The radar enhances our ability to monitor walking speed and determine if a senior has a fall risk; the bed sensors provide data on heart rate, respiration rate, and overall cardiac activity when a senior is sleeping. Both sensors are non-invasive and don’t require seniors to wear monitoring devices.”

Using the radar sensors, which were concealed in the living room of each senior resident, the study could monitor walking speed of residents and use it to assess risk of falls over a two year period. “Before using radar,” Dominic Ho, co-author and professor of electrical and computer engineering in the MU College of Engineering explained, “we were able to estimate an individual’s walking speed and have an idea of their health status. Now, we have data that definitely shows how declines in walking speed can determine the risk for falls.”

The research team also developed a bed sensor that uses a hydraulic transducer which measures the ballistocardiogram, the mechanical effect of blood flowing through the body as a result of the heart beating. The study placed four of the transducers under each mattress to capture cardiac data of the participants.

“Heart disease is a major cause of death for both men and women,” Skubic said. “Having a sensor continuously monitoring heart rate provides a significant benefit for older adults. The bed sensors also allow us to collect data on sleeping patterns — when people are in bed, how often they are in bed, and how long they are in bed. Similar to walking speed, sleep patterns can detect early signs of illness.”

The goal of the study is to find proactive monitoring methods that can help stave off more serious incidents before they occur, thus reducing costly hospital stays or other procedures and improve health outcomes for patients.

“If you can get ahead of the symptoms, you can fix the problem when it’s much smaller and avoid the hospital” or the long-term health problems, Marilyn Rantz, Curators’ Professor Emerita at the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, executive director of Tiger Place’s Aging in Place program and the project’s coordinator, told “If you can pick up subtle changes and address them early on, you’re so much better off.”