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Studies: mHealth Sensors Help Seniors Avoid the Hospital

Two mHealth projects at the University of Missouri are touting the value of sensors in monitoring seniors' activity and sleep patterns at home.

By Eric Wicklund

- An innovative mHealth program at the University of Missouri is using two different types of mobility sensors to monitor seniors for trending health concerns.

The bed sensor array used by University of Missouri researchers to monitor sleeping seniors at Tiger Place.

MU researchers are testing radar sensors to measure daily activity levels in seniors at Tiger Place, the university’s independent living community. They’ve also developed sensors that, when placed underneath a mattress, can measure cardiac and breathing activity in sleeping seniors.

The two 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 effort by MU researchers to use technology to help seniors age in place. Past Tiger Place projects have used gaming technology and video cameras to help detect changes in patterns that could indicate a pending health concern.

“In-home sensors have the ability to capture early signs of health changes before older adults recognize problems themselves,” Marjorie Skubic, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the MU College of Engineering and director of MU’s Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology, said in a recent 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.”

In the two-year radar project, sensors were placed inside boxes placed in the living rooms of 10 apartments at Tiger Place. The sensors measured walking and activity by the resident seniors, who were given monthly updates on their activity rates. Researchers analyzing the data from the sensors focused on changes in activity patterns that could indicate declining health, and perhaps an increased risk of falling.

“Before using radar, we were able to estimate an individual’s walking speed and have an idea of their health status,” Dominic Ho, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the MU College of Engineering and co-author of the study, said in the press release. “Now, we have data that definitely shows how declines in walking speed can determine the risk for falls.”

With the sleep study, researchers placed four hydraulic transducers under each mattress, capturing a senior’s ballistocardiogram while he or she was in bed. The ballistocardiogram, the mechanical effect of the blood flowing through the body as a result of a heart beating, helps researchers measure heart rate, respiration rate and overall cardiac activity.

“Having a sensor continuously monitoring heart rate provides a significant benefit for older adults,” Skubic said in the press release. “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.”

Last November, MU researchers published the results of a five-year study undertaken at Tiger Place which found that seniors who live with sensors in their homes had an average length of stay in an independent living community of 4.3 years, compared to 2.6 years for seniors who live without the sensors (but who do have access to MU’s care coordination program, which includes healthcare and social workers). The national average for a senior living in an independent community is 1.8 years.

“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.”

Dig Deeper:

mHealth and Seniors: ATA to Shine a Light on Home-Based Monitoring

9 Connected Health Recommendations to Help Seniors Aging in Place



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