by Julien Penders, Program Manager Body Area Networks, imec/Holst Centre, Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
Should you blame your parent if you’re overweight or diabetic? Well, it is known that there is a genetic component to it, but there is more to it – your lifestyle. Companies like 23andMe now allow consumers to find out whether their genetic code contains markers that increase their chance of contracting certain diseases. This may sound scary to many, but here is your opportunity to get healthier. Genetics gives you a probability of contracting a disease – it gives you a risk. But we can live healthier if we adapt our lifestyle as to reduce that risk. Think of overweight again. People who are predisposed to gaining weight can decrease their risk in contracting a chronic disease by keeping an eye on their weight and their fitness program.
And this is where technology enters the scene: it can play a key role to empower people towards disease prevention and save people’s lives. We need wearable sensors that bring medical quality data to the consumer. To be useful, these devices must have a desirable form factor, they need to be low power and cost-effective. To build such devices, radical innovations are needed in domains like sensor, circuit, system and integration technology; algorithms and data analytics. Obviously, such wearable sensors can help preventing diseases only if people change their behavior as a result of using them.
An example of an application that relies on such a technology is a wearable device that helps us to stay fit, by monitoring our daily activity. Today, a multitude of devices in various forms are available, most of them integrating MEMS accelerometers. They promise to track our activity and to give us an idea of our energy expenditure. Health savvy consumers embrace these devices, though the relevance and accuracy of the information that is provided is still limited. Wearable sensor technology promises to raise the quality of health parameter monitoring in every-day life environments, leading to more trustful and reliable information. An interesting approach is to combine an accelerometer with a heart rate sensor. We can go a step further and include personalized algorithms that continuously and automatically learn someone’s fitness level. This run-time fitness-level estimate can then be used to increase the accuracy of the energy expenditure estimation. We did so at imec and Holst Centre, and were able to significantly increase the accuracy for measuring energy expenditure.
Besides managing fitness, we need a technology that allows us to manage our stress. In the US, 30-40% of the population reports their job as being stressful, and this is known to have an impact on chronic diseases. Today, a few companies offer solutions to stress management. They develop apps that ask a few questions and give some advice. A more objective way to measure stress relies on capturing physiological signals, like heart rate, respiration rate and perspiration. At imec, we developed prototype wearable sensors – in the form of a necklace or a watch – that capture those biomarkers. We’ve shown that we can classify stressful situations with 80% accuracy in an office-like environment.
Health is about genetics and health is about lifestyle. Finally, health is also about environment. Our environment can affect our health, think about the quality of the air we breathe. What we need are small wearable sensors that continuously measure our environment while we carry on our daily activities. And this data should be shared amongst a community of consumers. Ideally, those sensors should be integrated almost invisibly in a watch or even a smartphone. Our prototype small sensor able to continuously measure NO2 concentrations is a first step in that direction.
Technology can contribute to drive and motivate behavior change and save lives. But we don’t want a gadget revolution. Instead, consumers need tools that give them quality medical data. And to reach that goal, people from various technology disciplines should work together, and jointly develop the technologies that can help us to live a healthier life.
Julien Penders – Program Manager Body Area Networks, imec/Holst Centre, Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Julien Penders leads the activities on Body Area Networks. He is responsible for the development of new system concepts and applications of wireless sensor networks in the area of health and lifestyle. This covers the integration of new technologies in prototypes of wireless health monitors, the development of embedded algorithms, the exploration of new applications, the early deployment of prototypes in pilot studies and the technology transfer to industry. He has (co-) authored over 50 papers in the field of body area networks and autonomous wireless sensor networks, and is the author of two book chapters on the topic. He serves as a reviewer for the IEEE EMBS community and several journals. He serves on the IEEE Technical Committee on Information Technology for Health, on the Technical Program Committee for the Wireless Health conference and is associate editor for the IEEE EMBS conference. Julien was a 2004/2005 fellow of the Belgian American Educational Foundation. He holds a M.Sc. degree in Systems Engineering from University of Liege, Belgium (2004), and a M.Sc. degree in Biomedical Engineering from Boston University, MA (2006).