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SPIE Professional July 2006

Aging Gracefully

The Stanford Center on Longevity faces the many social, political, and scientific challenges of an aging population.

By Erin M. Schadt

The Stanford Center on Longevity (SCL) is an interdisciplinary effort covering the myriad social, political, and scientific challenges aging creates.
"Our aim is not to further lengthen life but to improve quality of life at all ages," explains Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity (Stanford, CA).
The center's mission is to bridge the social sciences and natural sciences to solve the fundamental physical and social problems associated with extended life expectancy. This ranges from the social issues an inverted population can cause to technology that enables longer independent living.
"There are scores of ways that technology/science can contribute to this aim," says Carstensen. "Two very important ones are improving mobility and improving sensation-hearing, vision, balance."
Being an optical engineer, Duncan Moore is well versed in the ways technology can assist an older population. He believes the use of sensors, for example, will increase for monitoring older people in their homes, allowing individuals to live independently longer and safer.

"There's the whole issue of how you monitor the body. What kind of sensors you put on your body or in your clothing so you can know what's going on," says Moore. He cites examples with potential, such as breath test sensors to detect aging jaundice, sensors in food packaging to measure bacteria, and, of course, there's the smart toilet.

"We flush down a lot of information. The reality is, if you could monitor the urine and the stool, you could tell when someone's getting sick even before they realize they're getting sick," says Moore.

This moves past just technical challenges, though. Privacy concerns will need to be addressed, especially with the type of technology described. And beyond privacy issues are the geopolitical ramifications of aging-a subject Moore has been active researching in conjunction with the SCL.

"In the 20th Century we learned how to live to the average age of 77 [in developed nations], so it isn't like we have to invent something new to have the population live into the high 70s," says Moore. "We know how to clean up our air and vaccinate our children. What happens if China does that? And with the one-child policy that they had for so many years, they could end up with an inverted population very quickly-within 30 to 40 years."

"Different countries are aging at different rates," he continues. "Japan is about 20 years ahead of where [the U.S. is] in terms of aging. There are many countries that are relatively rich in their number of old people, and there are a number of countries that are extremely poor in the number of young people. That creates some very interesting stability issues around the world."
These are just the kinds of issues the SCL wants to take a look at and plan for now. Jump starting these conversations between organizations and governments is an important step. The SCL isn't just about theory, though. Among other plans, the SCL wants to create concrete results in the form of products, as well.
"The SCL will act as a catalyst helping to support basic research discoveries but also working with industries, business, governments, and entrepreneurs to bring products-conceptual and physical-to the public," says Carstensen.
To learn more about the SCL, visit the website.

Erin M. Schadt, SPIE Professional Managing Editor

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200607.18