IoN's Advanced Technologies for an Ageing Population Conference strikes a positive note in Glasgow

The Institute of Nanotechnology's conference Advanced Technologies for an Ageing Population, held at the IET's Teacher Building in Glasgow last week (23-24 March 2011), struck a highly topical and timely note with contributions from some 20 acknowledged experts on a range of subjects impacting upon the health and support of the older citizen.

Two keynote speakers on the first day of the conference set the overall scene for the event. Professor Rutledge Ellis-Benhke of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Medical Faculty Mannheim of the University of Heidelberg provided a comprehensive overview of new scientific approaches to treating diseases of the elderly. Professor Louise Robinson, of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University reported on new findings from a survey carried out by her Institute, including data on the health and healthcare needs of the "oldest old" aged 85 and over for whom there had previously been a lack of empirical data, and on the difficulties faced by GPs and other carers in supporting the ever-growing needs of this rapidly-increasing sector of society, particularly in terms of maintaining a good quality of life.

The remainder of the first day was devoted to a fascinating examination of novel scientific approaches to a range of diseases and conditions affecting the elderly including the diagnosis and treatment of hearing and balance disorders (Professor Ilmari Pyykkö, Tampere University Hospital, Finland), novel approaches to decubitus and chronic wound healing (Dr Herman Lenting, Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO)), biomimetic surfaces for regenerative medicine (Dr Matt Dalby, University of Glasgow), detecting and measuring and disordered proteins in neurodegenerative diseases (Professor David Allsop, Lancaster University and Dr Perdita Barran, University of Edinburgh), novel drug delivery to the eye for ophthalmic diseases of the elderly (Dr Eileen McBride, University of Strathclyde) and nanotechnologies for the early diagnosis of rheumatoid- and osteoarthritis (Dr Margarethe Hofmann, Coordinator, NanoDiaRA Project).

The first day's programme was concluded with a poster session and a civic reception for delegates and presenters at Glasgow City Chambers.

The second day of the conference was devoted to assistive technologies for the elderly and to a discussion of the economic, social and ethical aspects raised by a rapidly demographically ageing population. The second day's keynote speaker, Professor June Andrews, Director of the Dementia Services Development Centre, University of Stirling, reported that dementia care had cost the UK £10 billion in 2010 and explained that knowledge of the form of dementia that a patient suffered from was the key to providing the right kind of technological support.

In the morning's assistive technologies session the business landscape, and opportunities and challenges for small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), were explored by Janette Hughes (Wellness and Health Innovation Scotland). Continuing with this theme, the opportunities and challenges for telehealth services in Europe were discussed by Dr Malcolm Fisk (Health Design and Technology Institute, Coventry University) while Melanie Turieo (Cambridge Consultants, Boston, USA) described an initiative with Tufts University to design a user-friendly healthcare interface in collaboration with users at a care home. Professor Dermot Diamond (National Centre for Sensor Research, Dublin City University) demonstrated how the monitoring of utility services could provide a view of lifestyle patterns and explored the potential for smart and wearable sensors for healthcare monitoring. Alastair MacDonald from the Scottish company Sensorium described the company's "Just Checking" monitoring system and explored how this could be used as an assessment tool to design the optimum level of care for users, and to provide a means for them to keep in touch with family and friends. The session was concluded by a lively discussion session amongst the presenters and delegates chaired by Dr Donald Bruce (Edinethics).

Prior to the afternoon session, Lorna Bernard (Moray Community Health and Social Care Partnership) and Andrea Taylor (Glasgow School of Art) presented a project carried out between the two organisations involving student designers and a panel of elderly users, to demonstrate how user input to design could facilitate the development of better accepted and user-friendly telecare alarms and other telecare solutions.

The final session, addressing demographic, social, ethical and economic issues, commenced with a set of ethical reflections from Dr Donald Bruce (Edinethic) on how novel technologies could affect the lives of elderly patients, whether it would be ethically acceptable to technologically extend the human lifespan if it resulted in a poor quality of life and whether there should be limits to ageing research in a world where the majority did not enjoy the lifespan and health of those in Western countries. Alastair Kent (Director of Genetic Alliance UK and Chair of the European Platform for Patients' Organisations, Science and Industry) provided a view of the technology needs of an ageing population from the patients' perspectives, commenting that users were interested in improvement in treatments and in positive results but not necessarily in the technology used to produce them. Jackie Marshall-Cyrus (UK Technology Strategy Board) stressed the need for "attitude adjustment" towards the elderly and the need to avoid labelling. "elderly people" are just "people"! She emphasised the need for technological solutions to be embedded in an approach that was not inherently ageist and reinforced the message that older citizens did not necessarily consider themselves to be "old". The session and conference were concluded by a presentation from Professor Pauline Banks (Professor in Older Persons' Health, University of the West of Scotland) who summarised many of the demographic indications raised over the two days and reinforced the message that technological solutions aimed at improving the health and quality of life of older persons needed to be cost-effective and capable of being taken up by health and social care systems that were financially heavily constrained.

In closing the conference, Richard Moore (Institute of Nanotechnology) noted that there were a variety of useful technologies being developed that could have a major positive impact on the lives of older citizens but, as raised by many speakers, these needed to be implemented into policies and systems and that respected and improved the independence of those citizens, worked towards maximising their self-esteem and quality of life, improved their social connection to others, valued their continuing contribution to society, and that were affordable and cost-effective to run.