Using seismic sensors to monitor health of elderly

San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Zhaoshuo Jiang
San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Zhaoshuo Jiang is researching the use of seismic sensors to monitor health in the elderly. (San Francisco State University)

A research team led by San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Zhaoshuo Jiang is investigating how to monitor health in older adults by using floor vibrations to track their walking patterns. The research is funded by a $1.2 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Project Grant.

Jiang’s team is repurposing seismic sensors to monitor how the floor vibrates when people walk around. Previous research has shown that a person’s health is very closely tied to characteristics of their walk—the length and width of their steps, for instance, or the variability of their step patterns and the speed at which they move. Scientists believe these walking traits might predict health outcomes just as accurately as more familiar indicators like blood pressure, body mass index, and hospitalization history.

“As we age, we’re more prone to disease,” Jiang said in an article appearing on the San Francisco State University website. While wearable devices and camera systems open up opportunities for independently living seniors to track their health at home around the clock, these technologies can be challenging for seniors to use and may face resistance due to privacy concerns.

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The sensors Jiang’s team are trying to implement are potentially much more affordable and much easier to install than other systems. “If you have a room you need to retrofit, you just put a sensor there and you’re ready to go,” Jiang said.

Jiang is familiar with seismic sensors as his specialty is structural and earthquake engineering. To apply seismic sensor expertise to human health monitoring, Jiang and his colleague Juan Caicedo at the University of South Carolina is collaborating with a diverse team of experts, including a professor of exercise science and a doctor who specializes in geriatric medicine. Also on the team are two undergraduate students in Jiang’s lab. He plans to use the NIH funding to involve more graduate and undergraduate students as well as a postdoctoral researcher.

The team’s ultimate goal is to develop this research into an inexpensive, around-the-clock, at-home health monitoring system for older adults that can alert them when changes in their gait might indicate an emerging health problem. “That’s why we’re so excited about this,” Jiang said. “We’re applying our knowledge to an area we haven’t touched before that could have a big impact on a lot of people.”

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