Professor Tom Kirkwood has demolished a string of misconceptions about the ageing process with a groundbreaking study into the health of more than 1,000 older people in the 85-plus generation. “It’s a myth that they are bowls of misery, unhappy with their lot, and always going on about ailments,” he insists. “Four out of five of them actually think they are doing pretty well.”
His study, the largest of its kind ever undertaken, has proved revealing on several fronts. For a start, people in the 85-plus range are generally much happier, and more independent, than is generally realised. Remarkably, 80% of a group carefully selected by the Kirkwood team – a fair sample of the UK population of this age – need little care. Around the same number rate their quality of life either good or excellent.
On the downside, 20% need either regular daily help or critical 24-hour care. All of which might be almost manageable for the state, and for society, if this age range was static. But, as the amiable Kirkwood never tires of reminding questioners, the 85-plus group is now the fastest-growing segment of the population.
While the most recent analysis showed that the number of people in the UK aged over 80 to be at 2.6 million, by 2030 the figure is likely to jump to 4.8 million – and one in five will need regular care. Kirkwood’s team, at the world-leading Biomedical Research Centre in Ageing at Newcastle University, estimates that this will lead to an 82% increase in the demand for places in care homes, with an additional 630,000 older people needing accommodation.
This prompted one of Kirkwood’s academic colleagues to gently remind the government last year that it needs to be investing in elderly care and research to learn more about “healthy ageing”. Ministerial inaction over the Dilnot commission’s recommendation for capping the cost of care at £35,000 per person has emphasised his point.
Kirkwood’s project is comprehensively tracking the activities, and wellbeing, of people once considered very old. Known as the Newcastle 85+ Study, it began in 2006 when more than 1,000 85-year-olds, from Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside, were carefully selected from all social classes and backgrounds through GP practices. Most agreed to full, “multidimensional assessments” by a team of research nurses, including cognitive abilities, body measurements and blood tests. Beginning with a baseline appraisal, it initially involved follow-ups at 18 and 36 months using laptops, and games – much preferred to paper and pen by the participants.
Why this age group? “Although the 85-plus population is the fastest growing, it’s quite extraordinary how little we know about what 85-plus-year-olds are like,” says Kirkwood, a fairly youthful 60-year-old. “We’ve known for some time that ageing is extremely variable; that everybody is different and that the differences of individuals’ experience of ageing are greater than differences in earlier stages of life.”
And why so variable? “Because of the nature of the ageing process. I’ve been involved in this field for more than 35 years and when I entered it people fondly believed that ageing was programmed; that there was a mechanism inside our bodies that determined how long we would live. It was kind of written into our genes that we would die at a certain age. What we’ve been able to show is that the idea of this genetically programmed ageing makes no sense at all. There is no evidence.”
But, surely, genetic influences – a family susceptibility to cardiovascular problems, for instance – play a part in determining longevity? Only to a degree, insists Kirkwood. He points to a Danish study showing that such influences only explain about a quarter of the factors determining a lifespan.
Kirkwood explains: “What we now know is that the genetic factors that influence your longevity are not genes that measure out the passage of time; the reason we age and die is because, as we live our lives, our bodies accumululate a great variety of small faults in the cells, and the molecules that make up the cells in our body – so ageing is driven by this accumulation of faults. The genes that influence longevity are those that influence how well the body copes with damage, how aggressive our repair mechanisms are; they’re genes that regulate the house-keeping and maintenance and repair.”
And while some are endowed with these genes, others are not so fortunate, although Kirkwood is quick to point out that healthy lifestyle choices – good nutrition and moderate exercise, for instance – clearly play their part in determining longevity.
Kirkwood, a former BBC Reith lecturer, has been fascinated by the ageing process for much of his professional life. He fondly remembers a get-together with many of the participants in the study, now aged 91. “It was such a wonderful day,” he recalls. “They were the sparkiest, most engaged individuals you could imagine.” This reinforced his view that a large proportion of the elderly population was enjoying a pretty good and healthy quality of life.”
But sadly, he accepts, disadvantaged groups are not always so fortunate. He produces a graphic on his PC, an adaptation of the Tyne and Wear metro map, showing a big variation in the age at which people get a long-term medical condition – linked to the areas around stations. Those living near a station in a poorer part of Newcastle (Byker) on average contract an ailment at 64 – 11 years before others only a few miles away near the wealthier suburb of Ponteland. “Life expectancy would be the same ratio,” he laments. “If we could bring health and life expectancy of disadvantaged groups up to the level of the affluent, we would jump dramatically up the [longevity] league table.”
Perhaps to his amazement, official longevity forecasts have proved wide off the mark. Until relatively recently, he recalls, all the best brains in the world were forecasting that life expectancy would stall. “UN forecasts of 1980 predicted it was going to bump into a ceiling and stop increasing next week, but it didn’t happen; [it] carried on increasing pretty much as before.”
Why? “Something profound had changed … we were reducing the deaths in the early and middle years of life; we were reducing deaths around people who were very old – 80 and over – and those rates are [now] less than half what they were in 1951, the year I was born. This presents a really important challenge: to understand what life is like for the growing numbers of older people. We really want to understand something about the factors that influence the personal trajectory of health into old age.”
Cost of caring
Of course, this has huge implications for the cost of caring. Revealingly, in tracking 17 activities of daily living among survey participants – from dealing with finances to cooking and shopping – researchers found that men fared better than women; a third managed all 17 without help, compared with a sixth of women. Although women live, on average, five to six years longer than men, the study has found that their disabilities become greater with age.
As it stands, Kirkwood thinks we should all take comfort in life expectancy increasing by about two years every decade. He delights in translating this into a daily cycle. “In the UK, it is going to increase by about five to six hours, so most of us get out of bed fondly imagining we are waking up to a 24-hour day, when in reality it’s a 29-hour day.” Phew!
Status Married, two children.
Lives Near Rothbury, Northumberland.
Education Dragon school, Oxford; Magdalen college school; University of Cambridge (MA maths).
Career 2011-present: dean for ageing, Newcastle University; 2004-11: director, Newcastle University Institute for Ageing and Health; 1999-2004: professor of medicine, Newcastle University; 1993-99: professor of gerontology, University of Manchester; 1981-93: head of the laboratory of mathematical biology, National Institute for Medical Research; 1973-81: staff scientist, National Institute for Biological Standards and Control.
Interests Smallholding, rearing poultry.
• Tom Kirkwood is dean for ageing at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing and Health, which supports the recently transferred gallery exhibition Coming of Age: the Art and Science of Ageing, 1 June-18 August, GV Art, London, www.gvart.co.uk. He will be participating in The Long Run: Life is a Marathon, a public discussion on ageing and vitality at the Royal Society of Arts, London, 12 July. www.theRSA.org/events.
5/29/2012 | Liz Ahlberg, Physical Sciences Editor | 217-244-1073; firstname.lastname@example.org
CHAMPAIGN, lll. — Doctors can now get a peek behind the eardrum to better diagnose and treat chronic ear infections, thanks to a new medical imaging device invented by University of Illinois researchers. The device could usher in a new suite of non-invasive, 3-D diagnostic imaging tools for primary-care physicians.
The research team, led by University of Illinois electrical and computer engineering professor Stephen Boppart, will publish their advance in the online Early Edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 28.
Ear infections are the most common conditions that pediatricians treat. Chronic ear infections can damage hearing and often require surgery to place drainage tubes in the eardrum, and problems can persist into adulthood.
Studies have found that patients who suffer from chronic ear infections may have a film of bacteria or other microorganisms that builds up behind the eardrum, very similar to dental plaque on unbrushed teeth. Finding and monitoring these so-called biofilms are important for successfully identifying and treating chronic ear infections.
“We know that antibiotics don’t always work well if you have a biofilm, because the bacteria protect themselves and become resistant,” Boppart said. “In the presence of a chronic ear infection that has a biofilm, the bacteria may not respond to the usual antibiotics, and you need to stop them. But without being able to detect the biofilm, we have no idea whether or not it’s responding to treatment.”
However, middle-ear biofilms are difficult to diagnose. A doctor looking through a standard otoscope sees only the eardrum’s surface, not the bacteria-seeded biofilm lurking behind it waiting to bloom into infection. Invasive tests can provide evidence of a biofilm, but are unpleasant for the patient and cannot be used routinely.
The new device is an application of a technique called optical coherence tomography (OCT), a non-invasive imaging system devised by Boppart’s group. It uses beams of light to collect high-resolution, three-dimensional tissue images, scanning through the eardrum to the biofilm behind it – much like ultrasound imaging, but using light.
“We send the light into the ear canal, and it scatters and reflects from the tympanic membrane and the biofilm behind it,” said graduate student Cac Nguyen, the lead author of the paper. “We measure the reflection, and with the reference light we can get the structure in depth.”
The single scan is performed in a fraction of a second – speed is a necessity for treating squirming tots – and images a few millimeters deep behind the eardrum. Thus, doctors can see not only the presence of a biofilm, but also how thick it is and its position against the eardrum.
The paper marks the first demonstration of using the ear OCT device to detect biofilms in human patients. To test their device, the researchers worked with clinicians at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Ill., to scan patients with diagnosed chronic ear infections, as well as patients with normal ears. The device identified biofilms in all patients with chronic infections, while none of the normal ears showed evidence of biofilms.
“I think this is now a technology that allows physicians to monitor chronic ear infection, and examine better ways to treat the disease,” said Boppart, who is also affiliated with the departments of bioengineering and internal medicine, the Institute for Genomic Biology, and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I. “We can use different antibiotics and see how the biofilm responds.”
Next, the researchers plan to investigate different ear pathology, particularly comparing acute and chronic infections, and will examine the relationship between biofilms and hearing loss. They hope that improved diagnostics will lead to better treatment and referral practices.
The researchers hope to make their device – currently a hand-held
prototype – even more compact, easy to use, and low-cost. The device company Welch Allyn, based in Skaneateles Falls, N.Y., is a collaborator on the project, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Boppart’s group and its collaborators also will work to apply OCT imaging to other areas commonly examined by primary-care physicians. The ear-imaging device is the first in a suite of OCT-based imaging tools that the group plans to develop. Doctors could change the tip of the new OCT device, for example, to look at the eyes, mouth, nose, or skin.
“All the sites that a primary-care physician would look at, we can now look at with this more advanced imaging, “ Boppart said. “With OCT, we are bringing to the primary-care clinic high-resolution 3-D digital imaging and being able to look at many different tissue structures in real-time, non-invasively and in depth.”
“As medicine gets more high-tech, we want to give the front-line doctor the best technology to detect disease early,” Boppart said.
The first chemical circuit developed
29 May 2012 Linköping Universitet
Klas Tybrandt, doctoral student in Organic Electronics at Linköping University, Sweden, has developed an integrated chemical chip. The results have just been published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.
The Organic Electronics research group at Linköping University previously developed ion transistors for transport of both positive and negative ions, as well as biomolecules. Tybrandt has now succeeded in combining both transistor types into complementary circuits, in a similar way to traditional silicon-based electronics.
An advantage of chemical circuits is that the charge carrier consists of chemical substances with various functions. This means that we now have new opportunities to control and regulate the signal paths of cells in the human body.
“We can, for example, send out signals to muscle synapses where the signalling system may not work for some reason. We know our chip works with common signalling substances, for example acetylcholine,” says Magnus Berggren, Professor of Organic Electronics and leader of the research group.
The development of ion transistors, which can control and transport ions and charged biomolecules, was begun three years ago by Tybrandt and Berggren, respectively a doctoral student and professor in Organic Electronics at the Department of Science and Technology at Linköping University. The transistors were then used by researchers at Karolinska Institutet to control the delivery of the signalling substance acetylcholine to individual cells. The results were published in the well-known interdisciplinary journal PNAS.
In conjunction with Robert Forchheimer, Professor of Information Coding at LiU, Tybrandt has now taken the next step by developing chemical chips that also contain logic gates, such as NAND gates that allow for the construction of all logical functions.
His breakthrough creates the basis for an entirely new circuit technology based on ions and molecules instead of electrons and holes.
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A Lockheed Martin “unattended ground sensor,” or UGS, disguised as a rock.
Photo: Lockheed Martin<< Previous | Next >>
America is supposed to wind down its war in Afghanistan by 2014. But U.S. forces may continue to track Afghans for years after the conflict is officially done. Palm-sized sensors, developed for the American military, will remain littered across the Afghan countryside — detecting anyone who moves nearby and reporting their locations back to a remote headquarters. Some of these surveillance tools could be buried in the ground, all-but-unnoticeable by passersby. Others might be disguised as rocks, with wafer-sized, solar-rechargeable batteries that could enable the sensors’ operation for perhaps as long as two decades, if their makers are to be believed.
Traditionally, when armies clash, they leave behind a horrific legacy: leftover mines which can blow civilians apart long after the shooting war is over. These “unattended ground sensors,” or UGSs, won’t do that kind of damage. But they could give the Pentagon an enduring ability to monitor a one-time battlefield long, long after regular American forces are supposed to have returned home.
“Were going to leave behind a lot of special operators in Afghanistan. And they need the kind of capability that’s easy to put out so they can monitor a village without a lot of overt U.S.-made material on pathways and roadways,” says Matt Plyburn, an executive at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor.
The U.S. military has used unattended ground sensors in one form or another since 1966, when American forces dropped acoustic monitors on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Tens of thousands of UGSs have been emplaced around Afghanistan and Iraq, forming electronic perimeters around combat outposts and keeping tabs on remote locations. It’s a way to monitor the largest possible area with the smallest number of troops.
“You use them to cover up your dead space — the areas you’re concerned about but can’t cover with other ISR [intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance] assets,” says Lt. Col. Matt Russell, an Army program manager overseeing the deployment of unattended sensors.
But earlier UGSs — even ones of the recent past — were relatively large and clunky, prone to false alarms, and had lifespans measurable in days or weeks. “What we found in the field was significant under-usage,” Russell tells Danger Room. Plans to incorporate them into every combat brigade fizzled as the Army’s proposed $200 billion revamp, Future Combat Systems, went south.
The new models are dramatically smaller and consume far less power, enabling them to operate for months — maybe even years — at a time with only the slimmest chance of being detected. Lockheed calls them “field and forget” systems for “persistent surveillance.”
And they won’t just be used overseas. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol today employs more than 7,500 UGSs on the Mexican border to spot illegal migrants. Defense contractors believe one of the biggest markets for the next generation of the sensors will be here at home.
“They could be used for border security or even around corporate headquarters,” Plyburn tells Danger Room.
In early 2011, commanders in Afghanistan issued an “urgent operational needs statement” for better sensors. In response, the Army shipped a new line of about 1,500 “expendable” UGSs to the warzone. The size of a few stacked hockey pucks with a four-inch antenna, these sensors are easily hidden, and can “pick up wheels or footprints” for up to three months at a time, Russell says. It’s a perfect surveillance tool for the remote valleys of eastern Afghanistan.
Soon, when one of the sensors picks up a signal, it’ll queue a spy blimp to focus in on the spot. “That’s a capability coming to a theater near you soon,” he adds.
Even more sophisticated are the UGSs being tested northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, at a Lockheed proving ground. Arrays of up to 50 palm-sized acoustic and seismic sensors form a mesh network. When one sensor detects a person or a vehicle passing by, it uses unlicensed radio frequency bands to pass an alert from one node to the next. The alert finally hits a communications gateway, which can send the signal via satellite, tactical radio network, or Wi-Fi to a command and control center. That signal can tip off additional sensors — or it can send a Twitter-like message to an intelligence officer’s phone or tablet.
When they’re not picking up signals or passing along messages, the sensors are all-but-shut-down, barely consuming any power. That allows them to last for weeks, buried underground. Or the sensors can be encased in hollow “rocks” equipped with miniature solar panels. A quick recharge from the sun will allow the sensor to “get through the night anywhere on Earth that U.S. forces operate,” says Plyburn.
Plyburn claims that the sensor’s battery, about the size of a postage stamp, has been able to go through 80,000 recharges, compared to a few hundred cycles for a typical lithium-ion battery. Even if he’s off by a factor of 10, the sensor’s battery could keep the machine operational for nearly twenty-two years.
Russell is skeptical of these assertions of longevity. “I’m sure there are a lot of claims by contractors,” he says. “My experience is: the longer the lifespan, the bigger the battery.”
Nor does Lockheed currently have a contract with Defense Department to mass-produce the sensors. But Plyburn says there has been interest around the armed forces, especially since the system is relatively cheap. Plyburn says each sensor could cost as little as $1,000 each — practically expendable for a military paying $80,000 for a single guided artillery round.
Lockheed isn’t the only company claiming that its sensors can operate for years on end. U.S. Special Operations Command has handed out at least $12 million in UGS contracts to tiny Camgian Microsystems, based out of Starksville, Mississippi. Company CEO Gary Butler, who spent years developing ultra-low power integrated circuits for Darpa, was awarded in March a patent for such a next-gen unattended sensor suite.
Rather than relaying alerts from node to node, each of Butler’s sensors is designed to send signals directly to a satellite — speeding up notifications, and cutting down on power consumed. Rather than a simple acoustic or seismic detector, the sensor relies a steerable, phased-array radar and moving-target indicator algorithms. That could give it a much greater ability to detect people and vehicles on the run. High-powered solar cells provide will enable up to “500,000 recharge cycles” could give the sensor a “10-20 year life,” according to the patent.
Butler won’t say how U.S. special operators are using his research, if at all. But when I ask him about the possibility of leaving UGS networks behind after American troops have officially left, Butler calls that “plausible. Very Plausible.”
Camgian’s patent claims that the sensor’s ease-of-use and small size means it “is easily emplaced in difficult areas, using airborne assets such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.” Edward Carapezza, who has been overseeing UGS research for more than two decades, says drones are already dropping unattended sensors into hostile locations.
“In certain areas, we certainly are using unmanned vehicles and unattended sensors together,” says Carapezza, who now works at the defense contractor General Atomics. He declined to name where these operations were being conducted. He simply gave the rationale for the missions. “Instead of sending patrols of our guys in, we send in drones and unattended sensors — dropping arrays, locating bad guys, and then putting weapons on target.”
The “MicroObserver” UGS from defense contractor Textron has been in the field since 2008. The U.S. Army is currently using the sensors in Afghanistan. “Another customer — we’re not allowed to say who or where — used it as part of a comprehensive border security program in a Middle Eastern country,” says Patty Shafer, a Textron executive.
Textron’s seismic sensors come in two varieties. The smaller, three inch-long model, weighing 1.4 pounds, will last about a month. The bigger system, a 4.4 pound spike, can be buried in the ground and gather intelligence for more than two years. It can detect and characterize people from 100 meters away, and vehicles from three times that distance, Shafer says. A conformal antenna allows it to communicate with a gateway five kilometers away.
Northrop Grumman employs a family of sensors for its Scorpion surveillance network.
“Seismic sensors work well detecting vehicles on bumpy roads, but lose range as the road becomes smoother, or the vehicle lighter. Typically, magnetic sensors sense only large vehicles at fairly short distances. The range of acoustic sensors depends upon environmental conditions such as humidity and surroundings. Most sense engine exhaust noise or other periodic pulse trains and measure the period to determine numbers of cylinders and classify the source,” explains a Northrop presentation to an academic conference on unattended sensors.
The Army has purchased over a thousand of the original versions, with an average of four sensors, each. The vast majority have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 20 Scorpion II systems were recently bought by the Army Research Lab. The sensors can today spot people from 800 meters away, and vehicles from 2,100 meters. The sensors’ batteries wear out after a month.
These might have been eye-popping results, not long ago. But the U.S. military now has plans to keep its network of tiny, hidden spies going for much longer than that.
Feeling strong emotions makes peoples’ brains ‘tick together’
Research team at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre has revealed how experiencing strong emotions synchronizes brain activity across individuals.
Human emotions are highly contagious. Seeing others’ emotional expressions such as smiles triggers often the corresponding emotional response in the observer. Such synchronization of emotional states across individuals may support social interaction: When all group members share a common emotional state, their brains and bodies process the environment in a similar fashion.
Researchers at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre have now found that feeling strong emotions makes different individuals’ brain activity literally synchronous.
The results revealed that especially feeling strong unpleasant emotions synchronized brain’s emotion processing networks in the frontal and midline regions. On the contrary, experiencing highly arousing events synchronized activity in the networks supporting vision, attention and sense of touch.
– Sharing others’ emotional states provides the observers a somatosensory and neural framework that facilitates understanding others’ intentions and actions and allows to ‘tune in’ or ‘sync’ with them. Such automatic tuning facilitates social interaction and group processes, says Adjunct Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from the Aalto University.
– The results have major implications for current neural models of human emotions and group behaviour, but also deepen our understanding of mental disorders involving abnormal socioemotional processing, Nummenmaa says.
Participants’ brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they were viewing short pleasant, neutral and unpleasant movies..
The project was supported by the Academy of Finland and Aalto University (aivoAALTO-project).
The results were published on May 24th 2012 in scientific journal Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America (PNAS).
Adjunct professor Lauri Nummenmaa
Aalto University School of Science and Turku PET Centre
p. 040 586 6700
Voice-recognition software company Nuance is extending its speech-interface technology to television devices, the automobile, and wearable devices.
Dragon TV can scan TV channel listings to select relevant shows; a version is already in some televisions sold by Samsung.
Apple is rumored to be developing its own television, using Siri as its controller.
The Sync entertainment system in Ford automobiles uses Nuance’s technology to let drivers pull up directions, weather information, and songs. About four million Ford cars on the road have Sync with voice recognition.
Last week, Nuance introduced software called Dragon Drive that will let other car manufacturers add voice-control features to vehicles.
To ensure that the system works well in televisions and cars, where there is more background noise, the company is experimenting with array microphones and noise-canceling technology.
Montrue Technologies, a company based in Ashland, Oregon, used Nuance’s mobile medical SDK to develop an iPad app that lets physicians dictate notes.
Vlad Sejnoha, chief technology officer of Nuance Communications, believes that within a few years, mobile voice interfaces will be much more pervasive and powerful. “I should just be able to talk to it without touching it,” he says. “It will constantly be listening for trigger words, and will just do it — pop up a calendar, or ready a text message, or a browser that’s navigated to where you want to go.”
Perhaps people will even speak to computers they wear, like Google Glass. Sources at Nuance say they are actively planning how speech technology would have to be architected to run on wearable computers.
Supercentenarians are persons who have lived beyond the age of 110. Currently there are only about 80 such known individuals in the world whose age is verified.
These people represent the limit of human lifespan. For a variety of reasons not fully understood but including lifestyle choices, genetic variants, and chance, these individuals have escaped the usual causes of death including cancer, heart disease and stroke.
However, eventually they too die, with the world record holder being Jeanne Calment who survived until age 122.
In a newly published review Drs. Stephen Coles and Thomas Young of the UCLA Gerontology Research Group point out what it may be that is killing supercentenarians: amyloidosis.
Amyloidosis is a disease state hallmarked by the deposition of fibers of abnormally clumped masses of transthyretin. The protein transthyretin normally acts to carry thyroid and other hormones. Mutations in the gene make the fibers abnormally sticky and they tend to clump into long fibers which are deposited in multiple organs.
Through early onset amyloidosis leads to disease, it is of interests that supercentanarians all seem to have significant amounts of it. Though not proven it is possible the amyloid is killing them.
These persons have already escaped the typical causes of death however they have lived for so long, the normally innocuous amounts of amyloid that increase with age may actually become toxic to them because they have lived so many years.
Where this line of reasoning gets exciting is that experimental drugs exists which may eliminate amyloid.
These drugs are being studied for young persons with pathological amyloidosis. If they work, what would happen if they were adminstered to persons over age 95? Perhaps it is possible they could become the first drugs to extend human lifespan beyond current theoretical limits.