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Life expectancy has shot up in developed countries, above all among the elderly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of people over 60 will double between 2000 and 2050. Ageing is now one of the most important challenges our society is facing: 1 in 5 people will be over 60 by 2050. The elderly suffer from more diseases than the rest of the population and they are often chronic conditions that are extremely incapacitating with a poor prognosis, like dementia, cancer and diabetes.

ioengineering can offer solutions to improve the health and wellbeing of people in areas like mobile apps, care robots, new diagnostic tools and regenerative medicine solutions. The end goal is to help people live longer, healthier, at home (if they choose) while remaining self-sufficient. Experts from various disciplines are meeting on 9 November to discuss the opportunities bioengineering offers to tackle this challenge at an event hosted by B·Debate, an initiative of Biocat and the “la Caixa” Foundation. Entitled “Bioengineering for healthy ageing. Adding life to years”, this B·Debate session has been organized in conjunction with the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC).

Research is advancing in four main areas:

1.- Mobile apps to monitor the elderly without them having to leave home. There are people with reduced physical mobility, or who live in isolated towns and are far from a hospital, or who become disoriented when they are taken out of their usual surroundings.

One example is Health4Sleep, a mobile app developed by the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) and Hospital Clinic. The device is attached to the abdomen of people with respiratory problems to detect the movements of their diaphragm and monitor apneas while they sleep. To diagnose patients now they must currently spend a whole night in the hospital.

2.- Care robots to help the elderly with every-day tasks and at-home rehabilitation. Hiring at-home help to take care of the elderly is a huge expense that could be complemented, or even replaced, by a robot.

One example is the Rehabilitation Gaming System, which helps patients recover from a stroke using virtual reality and gaming processes. It can be used in the hospital or at home and consists of a computer and a Kinect system to make rehabilitation more intense and motivating.

3.- Diagnosis faster to treat patients as quickly as possible and minimize the debilitating consequences of a disease. Empowering patients and making them responsible for their own health.

For example, IBEC is working on a chip to detect different diseases. One example would be to detect the cause of stroke, whether hemorrhage or blood clot. This is important because they must be treated differently. The test could be done in the ambulance so no time is lost.

4.- Regenerative medicine to repair organs and tissues damaged by ageing, just like you change car parts. There are several ways to regenerate tissue: implanting stem cells, introducing biomaterials to trigger the body’s own regeneration mechanisms, stimulating the patient’s stem cells to regenerate the tissue, or a combination of these. 3-D printing is an emerging technology that can create ad-hoc tissues to be used in regenerative medicine.

For example, researchers at IBEC are working with a 3-D bioprinter to create kidneys and cardiac grafts to regenerate areas damaged by a heart attack.




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