Can Motion Sensors Predict Dementia?
By LAURAN NEERGAARD
The Associated Press
Monday, June 18, 2007; 11:13 PM
WASHINGTON — Tiny motion sensors are attached to the walls, doorways and even the refrigerator of Elaine Bloomquist’s home, tracking the seemingly healthy 86-year-old’s daily activity.
It’s like spying in the name of science with her permission to see if round-the-clock tracking of elderly people’s movements can provide early clues of impending Alzheimer’s disease.
Elaine Bloomquist points to a motion sensor in the bathroom of her home Monday, June 18, 2007, in Milwaukie, Ore. Tiny motion sensors are attached to the walls, doorways, and even the refrigerator of Elaine Bloomquist’s home, tracking the seemingly healthy 86-year-old’s daily activity. It’s like spying in the name of science with her permission to see if round-the-clock tracking of elderly people’s movements can provide early clues of impending Alzheimer’s disease.
“Now it takes years to determine if someone’s developing dementia,” laments Dr. Jeffrey Kaye of Oregon Health & Science University, which is placing the monitors in 300 homes of Portland-area octogenarians as part of a $7 million federally funded project.
The goal: Shave off that time by spotting subtle changes in mobility and behavior that Alzheimer’s specialists are convinced precede the disease’s telltale memory loss.
Early predictors may be as simple as variations in speed while people walk their hallways, or getting slower at dressing or typing. Also under study are in-home interactive “kiosks” that administer monthly memory and cognition tests, computer keyboards bugged to track typing speed, and pill boxes that record when seniors forget to take their medicines.
More than 5 million Americans, and 26 million people worldwide, have Alzheimer’s, and cases are projected to skyrocket as the population ages. Today’s medications only temporarily alleviate symptoms. Researchers are desperately hunting new ones that might at least slow the relentless brain decay if taken very early in the disease, before serious memory problems become obvious.
So dozens of early diagnosis methods also are under study, from tests of blood and spinal fluid to MRI scans of people’s brains. Even if some pan out, they’re expensive tests that would require lots of doctor intervention, when getting someone to visit a physician for suspicion of dementia is a huge hurdle. And during routine checkups, even doctors easily can miss the signs.
Bloomquist, of Milwaukee, Ore., knows the conundrum all too well. She volunteered for Kaye’s research because her husband died of Alzheimer’s, as did his parents and her own mother.
“It’s hard to know when people begin Alzheimer’s,” she reflects. “Alzheimer people do very well socially for short periods of time. If it’s just a casual conversation, they rise to the occasion.”
Measuring how people fare at home, on bad days as well as good ones, not just when they’re doing their best for the doctor may spot changes that signal someone’s at high risk long before they’re actually demented, Kaye told the Alzheimer’s Association’s international dementia-prevention meeting last week.
“If you only assess them every once-in-a-blue-moon, you really are at a loss to know what they are like on a typical day,” Kaye explains.
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