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Tech companies gear up for seniors

With the world's population getting older, technology is being positioned to help the elderly stay independent. Photos: Gadgets for seniors

Microsoft may have found a market for its Internet-enabled wristwatch: as a device to remind seniors to take their meds.

Intel, Microsoft and a variety of academics and companies associated with the IT industry will participate this week in the Conference on Aging, a symposium sponsored by the White House every 10 years.

Health care, some believe, will become one of the major markets for computer companies because of the astounding problems and expenses associated with medicine and elder care. Approximately 16 percent of the U.S. annual gross domestic product is spent on health care, according to Eric Dishman, general manager of Intel's health research and innovation group. That figure could rise to 25 percent as baby boomers begin to retire, he added.

Gadgets for the elderly

"That is unsustainable," Dishman said, adding, "There is a demographic tsunami coming."

Technologies for remote treatment could help deflate some of the costs. Some of the technology already exists; it just needs to be ported to the medical community.

Microsoft's SPOT watch, for instance, is being used in a trial of 50 seniors who take eight or more medicines a day, said Dishman. Medication compliance--that is, nurses reminding patients to take medicines and the health complications associated with patient failure to take medication--costs about $500 million a year, he said.

To date, however, automated systems have had only limited success because they are too obtrusive: only a small percentage of patients will use a technology that publicly signals that they need help or that they are taking medicine for illnesses such as dementia.

By sending a message through the watch, a patient can be subtly reminded. The medication trial has also included an electronic pill box that keeps track of a patient's dosages and a special software hook-up to the patient's TV that will flash a reminder in the form of a commercial.

Chipmaker Intel has begun trials on a machine that enables Parkinson's patients to conduct their own dexterity tests at home and send the results to the doctor. This increases the amount of testing and reduces the costs, said Dishman. Next year, Intel will participate in a university study of 300 80-year olds whose homes will be outfitted with sensors and cameras for five years.

"We want to look retroactively and see if the sensors picked up signs of dementia," Dishman said. "By age 85, half of them will have dementia," he predicted.

Compared to other parts of the world, the U.S. is behind in terms of fundamental research and new products. In Korea, companies have begun to sell cell phones that can test blood glucose levels for diabetic patients. The European Union has dedicated billions of euros to research that could develop tools for independent living by the elderly.

In the U.S., it's tough to get a grant for $100,000, Dishman said. So, about 400 companies and universities have joined the Center for Aging Services Technologies, which lobbies policymakers.

Intel isn't likely to get into the market for medical devices, he added. Instead, it will create chips for companies that make these devices.

Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel and a champion of a larger role for high tech in health care, spoke at the conference Monday.

"A broad range of personal health technologies designed to go into the home hold hope for seniors to 'age in place,' maintaining their independence and deferring costly institutional care," Barrett said in a statement.

Other participants at the conference will include the University of Michigan with its companion and caregiving robot Pearl. Roughly 30 companies and universities will show off technologies at the conference.