At the MIT AgeLab, Aging Is an Extreme Sport

Although the opportunity to give a presentation called “Trend-Tracking: Uncovering Resources to Spot Societal Trends, Improve Services and Increase Value to Members” was what brought me to Boston, the highlight of the conference agenda for me was the chance to meet Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, and hear him talk about “Aging as an Extreme Sport.” 

The AgeLab was created in 1999 to turn technology-based ideas into practical ways to improve people’s health, enable them to stay active, and increase their quality of life. Dr. Coughlin was inspired to start the AgeLab when Sarah Knauss — the world’s oldest living woman from April 16, 1998 until December 30, 1999 — turned 119 and said that she enjoyed her long life because she had her health and could do things. According to Dr. Coughlin, we’re so focused on longevity that we forget about quality of life. The AgeLab helps us remember how important it is to be able to do simple things like getting around and going shopping as we age. 

Based in MIT’s School of Engineering, the AgeLab designs, develops and deploys innovations for just about every aspect of how we will live, work and play in the future. As its slogan, “Life Tomorrow,” indicates, these solutions help us understand the needs of an aging population and design life-improving products that are accessible for people of every age. Its research is focused on five areas: transportation and community; housing and home services; health and wellness; business and policy innovation; and longevity and planning. 

After following Dr. Coughlin’s work for almost three years, I was most looking forward to hearing more about the Age Gain Now Empathy System (AGNES). One of the AgeLab’s technical innovations, AGNES is a suit designed to provide insight into the physical effects of aging. Each component of the suit simulates the changes that occur naturally as we age, including increased fatigue, reduced flexibility in joints and muscles, spinal compression, and difficulty with vision and balance. 

According to Dr. Coughlin, AGNES helps us feel the frustration felt by someone in their late 70s who suffers from at least two chronic conditions, such as osteoarthritis and advanced diabetes. Bands in the suit reduce the wearer’s trunk rotation, which is something we start losing in our 40s. The suit’s gloves help the wearer feel what it’s like to lose the ability to grip. Crocs-like shoes make it possible to simulate advanced neuropathy and why reduced feeling in an aging person’s feet makes her afraid of falling. 

Sporting his signature bow tie and wearing an iPod nano on his wrist, Dr. Coughlin introduced us to “Miss Rosie,” a Volkswagen Beetle which has been fitted with equipment to evaluate the driver’s physical capacity for operating a vehicle. Cameras monitor changes in spinal mobility and operator positioning. Force sensors detect the strength required for maneuvering a vehicle. On-road experiments assess a driver’s physical limitations due to natural aging, disease or medications. “Miss Daisy” is a fixed-based driving simulator which helps the AgeLab evaluate in-vehicle technology, cognitive distraction and the effects of disease and medication. Constructed with the cab of a 2001 Volkswagen Beetle, an eight-foot projection screen, and sensors on the accelerator, brake and steering wheel, Miss Daisy tracks the driver’s eye movements and physiology while taking spins that simulate highway, rural, urban and desert driving. 

Dr. Coughlin described some of the latest results of the AgeLab’s research, as well as some fascinating research on shopping and purchasing decisions which will be released next spring. He encouraged us to think about a new vernacular called the “smart” income, which consumers experience when they believe they have gotten a good buy at the store. He described some of the features of a technology-enabled future, such as intelligent devices, implantable sensors, clothing that tracks blood pressure and body temperature, integrated home services that detect what’s missing from your diet, and adaptive homes with robotic support that offer both care and companionship to their residents. To introduce the idea that people are looking for someone to help them make sense of complexity, especially in planning for retirement, he showed us Lending Tree’s “Great Scott”/”You to the Rescue” ad, voiceovered by Adam West (Batman). 

We also experienced for ourselves what it’s like for an 80-year-old who hasn’t managed her diseases well. We put on impaired acuity glasses, also known as low vision simulators, which blurred our vision, made us suffer from glare and diabetic retinopathy, and experience tunnel vision. 

Before we left for a procession led by a fife and drum corps to Faneuil Hall for lunch, Dr. Coughlin invited us to participate in one of the AgeLab’s current research projects. We wrote down two things we think we’ll be doing after we turn 65, our ZIP code, the year we were born, and our gender. In the last year, the AgeLab has collected over 13,700 responses to these questions about how people plan to spend their retirement. 

Dr. Coughlin blogs about aging, technology and innovation at Disruptive Demographics. Follow him on Twitter at @josephcoughlin.

Of course, the AgeLab isn’t the only organization working on ways to help aging people achieve greater mobility and productivity. When I’m sharing information on the topic with others, I pull two journal articles in my reference library that describe other equally inspiring initiatives. 

“How BMW Is Defusing the Demographic Time Bomb,” an article by Christoph H. Loch, Fabian J. Sting, Nikolas Bauer and Helmut Mauermann in the March 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Journal, provides a case study of what happened when BMW decided to staff one of its production lines at its plant in Dingolfing, Lower Bavaria with workers with an average age of 47, an age likely to be typical at the company in 2017.  

Recognizing that older workers tend to call in sick for longer periods and generally have to work harder to keep up the pace, the company made physical changes to the workplace that would increase workers’ productivity, reduce wear and tear on their bodies, and decrease the likelihood that they would miss work. New wooden flooring and weight-adapted footwear reduced joint strain.  Special barbershop-style chairs were installed at several workstations, which allowed workers to work sitting down or to relax in them during short breaks.  Vertically adjustable tables helped workstations adapt to each worker’s height, reducing back strain.  Flexible magnifying lenses helped workers distinguish between small parts, reducing eyestrain and mistakes. Additionally, a physiotherapist developed strength and stretching exercises, which he performed with the workers daily.  

Honda Steps Toward Innovative Mobility,” an article by Jeffrey A. Smith in the Fall 2012 issue of AARP International’s The Journal, describes how Honda’s research of walking habits led to a humanoid robot named Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) that can walk, run, climb stairs and dance. Honda also developed assistive devices for stride management and bodyweight support, as well as a self-balancing unicycle that allows a rider to maneuver easily among other people. Although they are not available to the public yet, it is hoped that these experimental devices will help aging people become more mobile and independent.


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