Sept. 18--IBM has given UC San Diego a $10 million contract to search for ways to preserve people's ability to think and remember things clearly to help seniors live in their own homes late into life, perhaps until they die.
The money is aimed at a problem that trips up many older adults -- mild cognitive impairment, a condition that can make it difficult to remember simple things like a name, and how do basic tasks like balance a checkbook.
UC San Diego will try to make it easier to detect MCI, whose symptoms can be hard to distinguish from the natural declines in thinking and memory that are a part of aging.
Scientists also are focusing on MCI because the condition can lead to serious forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease.
"If you can detect it in time, there are ways to dramatically slow MCI down," said Tajana Šimunic Rosing, a UC San Diego computer scientist who will help lead a five year study of the matter.
"The bad news is that by the time most people go see a doctor they're already experiencing more severe stages of cognitive decline."
Scientists say the future looks promising due to the rise of web-connected sensors that can observe people with great precision and the availability of computer systems like IBM Watson, which crunch huge sets of health data in search of patterns and meaning.
There's also a growing sense of urgency about the need to help older adults stay healthy. People are living longer. They want to stay in a home of their choice. And the nation's population is aging rapidly, a change that involves great cost.
Medicaid spends about $150 billion a year to provide services and support to older Americans.
Much of the $10 million contract that UC San Diego will get from IBM will be used to study about 50 people who are 65 and older.
Ten of those people will have their homes outfitted with a variety of sensors and electronic devices that will monitor their daily habits and behavior, which provide clues to how clearly people are thinking and remembering things.
The sensors could be placed in everything from cellphones to phone outlets.
"We want to use the home environment to learn what's going on with people," Rosing said.
This part of the study also will involve scientists who can help identify cognitive decline by examining subtle changes in behavior, such as a person inexplicably repeating something or taking longer pauses when they speak.
Like the 40 other participants, the ten people also will undergo more classical study. The university's Center for Healthy Aging will evaluate such things as a person's general physical health, cognitive function and quality of their social life.
Dilip Jeste, the center's director, doesn't expect to have trouble finding participants, noting, "Most older people want to avoid going into assisted living, let alone nursing homes. Everyone wants to live independently as long as possible."
The project also involves studying people's microbiomes -- or the genetic make-up of the micro-organisms that live in and on a person's body, notably in the gut. Scientists believe that a person's ever changing microbiome directly affects their health. The affects on memory and thinking are unclear, but need to be studied, say researchers.
UC San Diego is going to feed IBM Watson a large body of published data about the microbiome, along with readings from the upcoming study.
The university plans to draw study participants from a variety of places, including the Paradise Valley Retirement Community in National City. Researchers are looking for people like Louise Oberlin, one of the community's residents.
Oberlin is an optimistic soul who nonetheless describes the indignities of aging in frank terms.
"I've noticed that I don't pick things up as quickly," the 73 year-old Oberlin said Friday. "I may have to read a page twice to get the whole thing. It's a slowly moving stream of diminishment."
The problems include sometimes forgetting people's names.
"I'll look at people I've known forever and can't think of their name," said Oberlin. "My first thought is that I'm embarrassing myself. My second thought is I get to use (the excuse), 'I'm older, I'm a senior.' That's natural.
"The other part is that it feels bad to not feel competent in my own environment."
On balance, though, she is thriving, saying, "I'm happy. My life is good. The things that have happened to me have made me be able to love the life that I'm in today."
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