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How RFID Aids Alzheimer's Patients

Researchers at Intel are developing systems that use RFID and sensors to assist people with cognitive impairments. The work could lead to smart homes for the elderly and infirm, and one day, all of us.
By Bob Violino
Apr 19, 2003—April 21, 2003 - The sad fact is we're getting older. In the United States, the percentage of the population that is over 65 years old is expected to rise from less than 13 percent today to 20 percent by 2030. Europe is aging even faster than the US, and the elderly are expected to make up 30 percent of Japan's population in less than 30 years. This trend has sweeping implications for businesses as well as public policy makers. Last year alone, American businesses lost more than $40 billion dollars in wages because employees had to leave work to take care of elderly relatives.
Intel's Dishman

A new area of research is opening up to address issues related to aging. It focuses on helping elders remain independent and live in their own homes. The research arm of Intel, the world's largest semiconductor company, is exploring how technology might play a key role in this effort. Its Proactive Health project is examining how radio frequency identification, motion sensors, video cameras, sensor networks and other tools might aid elders with Alzheimer's and other types of cognitive impairment. The research could help make seniors more independent and also provide new diagnostic tools to help doctors detect diseases and monitor patients.

"We're starting with Alzheimer's, then cancer and cardiovascular conditions," says Eric Dishman, who heads the Proactive Health project. "If you cover just those three, you reach about $500 billion out of the $1.3 trillion dollar annual budget for American healthcare."

Dishman is a social scientist by training. But he's a self-described computer geek who ran an RFID tagging group at Interval Research, a now-defunct think tank set up by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
("RFID tagging and object tracking are near and dear to my heart," he says.) Dishman joined Intel in 1999 as a senior social scientist in the People and Practices Research Group. His team was working on a digital entertainment project for consumers when he discovered how RFID and other technologies could help people, especially those dealing with cognitive decline, "age in place."

Dishman and his colleagues were showing concept prototypes to people in their homes. One prototype used photos with RFID tags. When the photos were waved near a reader, they brought up associated multimedia stories. Few consumers were overly impressed with the concept, but people with aging parents saw a different application for the technology.

"They kept saying, `If you can do some of these magic things you've shown us, I need a way to take care of my mom who is 85 years old and lives 100 miles away'," Dishman explains. "We heard that so many times that we decided to spin out a project that looked at health and wellness uses for computing broadly -- everything from RFID tagging to high-end Pentium processing."
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