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Live-In Laboratory May Help Older Adults Live Independently Longer


Let's report on a new kind of physical exam. Many people get an annual physical - suppose you did that differently. Suppose you had a physical everyday and did it without ever leaving home. A high-tech apartment complex makes that possible. Health-tracking technology is built in to the appliances, furniture and even the floor. KERA's Lauren Silverman takes us inside.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: At this apartment, a fingerprint and a push get you through the door.

MANFRED HUBER: That's basically - it's an electronic lock, so we can fingerprint lock it.

SILVERMAN: Manfred Huber is our way in to this cozy one-bedroom at Lakewood Village Senior Living Community. The associate professor of computer science at UT Arlington points out - yes, there are no keys to lose.

HUBER: But, in particular, for people, this handle is easier to deal with, like, if you have arthritis.

SILVERMAN: The door, like the rest of the apartment, is high-tech for a reason. Every detail has been designed to make it easier for older adults to live independently longer.

HUBER: The biggest thing we have in the apartment is the thing you're walking on.

SILVERMAN: The entire floor is custom-built, studded with sensors that give pressure readings 50 times a second. Of course, you can calculate weight, which is why there's no scale in the apartment, but also tiny fluctuations that could help doctors track patients or concerned kids check in on their parents.

HUBER: While you're standing, every muscle adjustment in your ankle, every little twitch will actually register on those sensors. We can measure how much your sway is, how fast your sway is, how many corrective movements you make.

SILVERMAN: Researchers at UT Arlington will be studying the movements of a senior who moves in to live-in laboratory this semester. Clues to whether someone is likely to fall might be found in the feet. Clues to whether someone's liver or heart is working properly could be found in the face.

HUBER: So there's a camera right behind us.

SILVERMAN: Huber is looking straight into the bathroom mirror. Using face-recognition software, the hidden camera focuses on the area right below his eyes - you can't tell, but it's analyzing skin color

HUBER: There's a number of diseases that actually change your skin colors, for example, hepatitis makes your skin yellower. If we can model this, we can detect things like changes in your blood color which might be some of these conditions. The other thing we can pull out of this color is your heart rate. People can't actually see the color change in the face due to pulse - computers can.

SILVERMAN: The pulse tracking mirror in the bathroom, the sensor packed floor - another preventative technology is in the bedroom, but don't worry there's nothing unseemly here. Below a floral comforter there's a pressure-sensing mat that you could actually buy now for more than 3,000 dollars. In it, thousands of individual pressure points track how a body tips and turns - even breathes.

HUBER: We're also working on pillows that do the same thing -where, basically, if you have your head on it, it can pull out your heart rate, and it can find your breathing pattern because your head is lying on the pillow.

SILVERMAN: Which could help detect sleep apnea or prevent bed sores. All the data that's collected travels to a room next door where two computers are flashing with numbers, analyzing changes in balance and weight, breathing and pulse.

HUBER: And then that is information that could actually go to your doctor's office, if you want to - to their children. Things like grandma is as active as normal or grandma hasn't moved as much around as before - you might want to give her a call.

SILVERMAN: If a 24/7 physical sounds creepy, keep in mind the person living there will have control over what happens with the information. Beyond privacy concerns, Laurie Orlov worries that tracking alone isn't enough to keep seniors healthy. She's founder of the market research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch.

LAURIE ORLOV: Everybody wants to make sure grandma or my mother or whatever is OK and they live a long distance away from me. But unless you can provide them with some kind of engagement technology in conjunction with monitoring them, then what you're really doing is watching them in a way that may benefit you, the watcher, but doesn't necessarily benefit the older person directly.

SILVERMAN: Which is why she likes the idea of using technology to help seniors chat and spend time with friends and family. What's most important, Orlov says, is that the team at UT Arlington thinks beyond research, too many of these types of high-tech experimental rooms, she says, never get off the showroom floor.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Silverman is the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She is also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.