New Activity Measure Shows Potential to Assess Mobility in Older Adults

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published a study that demonstrates the feasibility of using non-invasive, “off the shelf” mobile technology to monitor the level of activity and mobility of community-dwelling older adults. The researchers showed that by using a cell phone, a few Bluetooth sensors, and the global telecommunications network, it is possible to non-invasively and confidentially track an individual’s “lifespace,” which is “a measure of the frequency, independence, and geographic extent of an individual’s travels.”

Lifespace has been demonstrated in previous research as a correlate of physical mobility, clinical course after treatment, and functional capacity. The authors also draw on previous research to argue that lifespace measures can also be used to identify community-dwelling older adults who, due to limited movement or mobility, may be at risk for decline or failure to thrive.

By setting up the study participants (three of the researchers) with a cell phone that they carried in their pocket (when not bathing, swimming, or sleeping) and a few Bluetooth sensors in their homes, the researchers were able to detect movement both within the home and in the community. This information can be de-identified for privacy concerns while still being used to see how much a person is moving and whether, for example, their movements outside the home are indicative of spontaneous or non-habitual movement (such as deviating from commonly-travelled paths like between home and work), which is considered a positive marker of functional independence.

The researchers show that this non-invasive, cost-effective technology could be used immediately for clinical and other trials. For example, study participants could be given a cell phone to track their movements both before and after a new surgical technique or using a new medication. This would add a strong new objective measure of mobility that can be used to improve clinical trials. Perhaps more exciting for community research, if slightly more difficult to adapt to, is this method’s potential to track the function of community-dwelling individuals who are at risk for developing mobility limitations. It will take time to see whether individuals are comfortable with what they may perceive as a risk to their privacy (though information would be de-identified) and whether they can adapt to carrying their phones with them at all times. Either way, this methodology is an exciting bridge between the use of lifespace as a measure of functioning and low-cost, non-invasive, commercially available mobile technology.

Source: Schenk AK, Witbrodt BC, Hoarty CA, Carlson RH Jr, Goulding EH, Potter JF, Bonasera SJ (2011), “Cellular telephones measure activity and lifespace in community-dwelling adults: proof of principle.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 59(2):345-352


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