Building an age-friendly world

Medical technology is helping senior citizens to remain independent

By Catherine Bischofberger

From robots to wearables, various technology breakthroughs are helping the elderly population better cope with the many inconveniences associated with old age. IEC International Standards help these new devices to perform safely and meet the requirements of older people.

Older person receiving medical advice online Telemedicine can be used by elderly patients to consult specialists from home

Technology breakthroughs are helping us to live longer while enjoying a better quality of life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2020, the number of people aged 60 and older will outnumber children younger than five. China, in particular, is witnessing a very fast growth in its elderly population.The WHO expects the number of people older than eighty in that country to soar to 120 million by 2050. Governments are having to adapt to this skyrocketing trend, with new financial and infrastructure strategies and projects. Many of these encourage elderly people to live as independently as possible for as long as possible. Living at home is less expensive than being in a specialized facility and it is also viewed as a way of promoting a better quality of life for elderly people, with the help of new technology.

Betting on 3D

Medical imaging and scanning increasingly rely on 3D medical visualization. This technology provides a much better view of cancerous tumours. Ailments that frequently plague senior citizens can be detected more easily and treated earlier than in the past. Artificial intelligence (AI) combined with 3D imaging can be relied upon to provide increasingly accurate diagnoses. As a result, long and costly stays in hospitals can often be avoided. IEC Technical Committee 62 prepares standards relating to electrical equipment in medical practice. One of its subcommittees (SC 62B) establishes specifications for all kinds of medical diagnostic imaging devices (e.g. x-ray imaging and magnetic resonance imaging equipment as well as computed tomography).

The elderly can also increasingly consult specialists from home, using telemedicine. Instead of spending hours in a hospital or medical practice waiting to see the doctor, which can be uncomfortable, especially for patients suffering from Alzheimers, they can interact with a specialist over a video link, with the help of a care giver. In China, a company based in Shandong, has launched a service for elderly people based on various technologies. It includes a voice-activated assistant, a television set equipped with a webcam, an internet-connected set top box and even a robot companion.

The joint technical committee established by the IEC and ISO, JTC 1, includes several SCs that deal with these various technologies. SC 35: User interfaces, publishes ISO/IEC 30122-1, which specifies the framework and general guidance for voice command user interfaces. SC 42 prepares standards for AI, while SC 41 publishes documents relating to the Internet of Things.

IEC TC 100 develops standards for audio, video and multimedia systems. The TC set up a technical area (TA) to address aspects of active assisted living (AAL). AAL technologies include systems and devices, which support the well-being and care of disabled and older people. The TA liaises with the IEC System Committee on Active Assisted Living (SyC AAL), which focuses on the standardization of AAL products, services and systems to enable independent living for AAL users.

Matching the patch

Wearable technology is also improving the lives of senior citizens. Medical “stick-ons” provide an ambulatory option enabling older patients to stay at home. Some monitoring devices can detect falls and trigger alarms, warning medical staff who can then intervene. Cardiac activity can be assessed from afar as well. The trend is for monitoring patches to become smaller and less cumbersome to wear. Scientists are developing skin-like flexible devices equipped with sensors, powered by body heat or movement, which removes the need for cumbersome and power-hungry batteries.

Several IEC TCs prepare standards relevant in these areas. IEC TC 79 issues documents dealing with alarm and electronic security systems. IEC TC 47 publishes the IEC 62951 series on flexible and stretchable semiconductor devices. These standards are crucial for enabling electronic devices and sensors to be integrated in flexible patches. For instance, IEC 62951-1 establishes simple and repeatable test methods for evaluating the electromechanical properties or flexibility of conductive thin films on flexible substrate. IEC TC 119 establishes requirements relating to printed electronics, which enable the creation of numerous electronic devices or components, including wearables, using various printing methods. Last but not least, IEC TC 124 is specifically dedicated to developing standards pertaining to wearable electronic devices and technologies.

Robots lend a hand

While enabling senior citizens to stay at home is becoming the favoured option for governments and health specialists around the world, one of its drawbacks is the risk of loneliness. Family ties are becoming looser and more and more elderly people do not have any relatives to rely upon. In Japan, robots are already used to fill that void while also helping the elderly to carry out mundane tasks at home. The Dinsow elder care device manufactured by a Japanese robotics company acts as a personal assistant of sorts. It helps its human counterparts to remember to take their pills, tracks their health and automatically answers incoming calls from family and doctors.

All these advances would convince the most stubborn of luddites that electrotechnical technology can be a force for good. As long as IEC International Standards are there to ensure it operates to the highest quality and safety specifications.

Gallery
Image of older people According to the WHO, the elderly population is expected to soar in the next thirty years, in every country around the world
ICub_Innorobo_Lyon_2014 Robot companions are widely used in Japan to help senior citizens (photo: Xavier Caré Wikipedia)
Older person receiving medical advice online The elderly can also increasingly consult specialists from home, using telemedicine