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Next-Generation Undergarments Defend Against Falls, Infections

Undergarments are perhaps the most under-appreciated articles of clothing, but new innovations in technology are enabling them to take center stage in the fight to help seniors maintain their independence and health.

During the 2014 SXSW (South By Southwest) Conference—an annual gathering of music, film and interactive technology experts—in Austin, Texas, two companies were honored for their advancements in the realm of functional undergarments for the elderly: ActiveProtective Technologies, an organization that creates injury-preventing "smart garments" for people at high risk for falling, and who recently designed a special brief that reduces the physical impact of a fall; and Pixie Scientific, a health monitoring technology firm who just developed an adult diaper to track urinary health.

Using technology to prevent fall injuries

The statistics on senior fall injuries are scary:

  • Each year, one out of every three adults 65 and over has a fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These tumbles can cost Medicare beneficiaries anywhere from $13,797 to $20,450 (in 2012 dollars), depending on the extent of their injuries.
  • Among aging adults, fall-related injuries result in five times as many hospital stays than injuries cause by other incidences. Falls also cause the vast majority (over 95 percent) of hip fractures in the elderly.
  • Twenty percent of hip fracture sufferers die within one year.

It's no wonder that concerned family members want to know what they can do to reduce their elderly loved one's risk of being injured by a fall; regardless of whether they live at home by themselves, with a family caregiver or in a senior living community.

Regularly practicing balance-enhancing exercises, removing clutter that can cause a senior to trip, and making sure medications don't have any fall-inducing side effects may help prevent a loved one from taking a tumble, but in the event that a fall does occur, few injury-prevention interventions are available.

Clothing items with built-in pads meant to cushion an elder's bones during a fall have been around for decades, but the bulky (and often uncomfortable) nature of these undergarments makes them challenging for seniors to wear.

A study of rest home residents in the United Kingdom found that a mere 50 percent of seniors would try out hip-protecting garments for a given period of time, and only 30 percent were willing to wear them every day, for 12 weeks. Poor fit and discomfort were the top two reasons cited for not wanting to don the padded clothing. 

Years of serving as the Head of Trauma for two separate hospitals in Philadelphia, PA gave Dr. Robert Buckman first-hand insight into the true devastation that can visit an elder after a simple fall, and inspired him to found ActiveProtective Technologies.

Buckman and his team set out to design a more wearable undergarment geared towards reducing an elder's risk of sustaining a physical injury due to a fall. They developed a pair of briefs laced with motion sensors that can detect a fall in progress and respond by inflating a set of micro-airbags designed to cushion a senior's hip on impact.

Recent testing of this so-called "fall disambiguation" technique, conducted at the Veterans Administration Gait and Motion Analysis Lab, found that the briefs could cut the force of impact from a standing fall by 90 percent—an amount sufficient enough to eradicate most hip fracture risk.

The brief isn't yet available in stores, but the company hopes to have a consumer-ready product available within the next year.

Also in the works is an initiative out of the U.K. to manufacture clothes for seniors that incorporate Armourgel—a special material that is thin and moves with the body, but strong and becomes hard on impact. Armourgel and similar synthetic compounds are currently used in gear designed to shield motorcyclists in the event of a crash.

Adult diapers that detect dangerous health issues

Adult diapers are an embarrassing necessity for millions of aging adults who struggle with the challenges of incontinence.

These undergarments offer varying degrees of absorption and protection against leaks, but the rise of "wearable technology" has unlocked the potential for adult diapers to serve an unprecedented health tracking and alert function by detecting when a senior is dehydrated or has a urinary tract infection (UTI).

Pixie Scientific's "Pixie Briefs," are adult diapers that contain special compounds that interact with an elder's urine. The diaper is meant to be worn once a day (regular adult diapers can be used for the rest of the time) and, once it's wet, the senior or their caregiver can scan the QR code on the front of the garment with their smartphone or tablet. The information in the code is downloaded onto a companion app, which runs an algorithm to check for signs that a senior's urinary health is not what it should be.

As a person ages, their body water composition, thirst level and kidney functioning all decline, increasing their chances of becoming dehydrated. Certain medications, incontinence and an inability to physically get up and get water when they need to can also up dehydration risk in the elderly.

Not consuming enough water can extremely dangerous for seniors, potentially contributing to kidney stones, falls, infections (UTIs, in particular), dangerous changes in blood pressure, bed sores and pneumonia, to name a few. Indeed, dehydration is on the list of the ten most common diagnoses when people on Medicare are admitted to the hospital, says the Health Care Financing Administration, which helps oversee the Medicare program.

For the elderly, urinary tract infection symptoms often manifest differently than they do in younger individuals, which can make the condition more difficult to spot. In addition to the typical itchy, burning, odorous urine, a senior with a UTI may also experience hallucinations, cognitive impairment and other signs of dementia. The ability to identify a UTI before an elder begins to exhibit these concerning (and dangerous) signs may help to avoid an unnecessary trip to the hospital.

A pilot study is currently underway to test the safety and effectiveness of Pixie Briefs in elders in assisted living.

What's your take on these innovative undergarments? How else could "wearable technology" be used to help you and your loved one?

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