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Smartphone turned into BP monitor with cheap 80 cent clip

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Engineers from the University of California San Diego have devised a cheap and simple way to check blood pressure using a smartphone.

They’ve come up with a low-cost clip that can tap into the phone’s camera and flash when used in conjunction with a special downloadable app.

To measure their blood pressure, the user simply presses on the clip with their fingertip. The smartphone app tells them how hard and long to press during the measurement.

The 3-D printed plastic clip that fits over the smartphone’s camera and flash currently costs about 80 cents to make. But the team behind the innovation says the cost could be as low as 10 cents apiece if their idea is adopted and manufacturing can start on a commercial scale.

Such a device would revolutionise blood pressure monitoring, especially in impoverished and remote areas of the world where older adults and pregnant women, for example, may not have ready access to clinics or hospitals equipped with BP cuffs.

News of the technological breakthrough has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports.

Yinan (Tom) Xuan, study first author and an electrical and computer engineering PhD student at UC San Diego, said: “We’ve created an inexpensive solution to lower the barrier to blood pressure monitoring.”

Study senior author Edward Wang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego and director of the Digital Health Lab, added: “Because of their low cost, these clips could be handed out to anyone who needs them but cannot go to a clinic regularly. A blood pressure monitoring clip could be given to you at your check-up, much like how you get a pack of floss and a toothbrush at your dental visit.”

Prototype of the blood pressure monitoring clip. Credit: Digital Health Lab/UC San Diego

A key advantage of the clip is that it does not need to be calibrated to a cuff.

Dr Wang said: “This is what distinguishes our device from other blood pressure monitors.”

Other cuffless systems being developed for smartwatches and smartphones, he explained, require obtaining a separate set of measurements with a cuff so that their models can be tuned to fit these measurements.

“Our is a calibration-free system, meaning you can just use our device without touching another blood pressure monitor to get a trustworthy blood pressure reading.”

The clip features an optical design similar to that of a pinhole camera. When the user presses on the clip, the smartphone’s flash lights up the fingertip. That light is then projected through a pinhole-sized channel to the camera as an image of a red circle.

A spring inside the clip allows the user to press with different levels of force. The harder the user presses, the bigger the red circle appears on the camera.

The smartphone app then extracts two main pieces of information from the red circle. By looking at its size, the app can measure the amount of pressure that the user’s fingertip applies. And by looking at the brightness of the circle, the app can measure the volume of blood going in and out of the fingertip.

An algorithm converts this information into systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings.

The user presses on the clip and a custom smartphone app guides them on how hard and long to press during the measurement. Credit: Digital Health Lab/UC San Diego

The researchers tested the clip on 24 volunteers from the UC San Diego Medical Centre. Results were comparable to those taken by a blood pressure cuff.

Alison Moore,  study co-author, medical collaborator and chief of the Division of Geriatrics in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said: “Using a standard blood pressure cuff can be awkward to put on correctly, and this solution has the potential to make it easier for older adults to self-monitor blood pressure.”

Checking blood pressure is one of the simplest, but one of the most important health checks. It offers a vital insight into your health.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure – or hypertension – increases with advancing age. More than half of people aged between 60-69 and around three-quarters of those 70-plus are affected.

It can lead to a stroke, heart attack, and heart and kidney failure.

Low blood pressure can be dangerous too, causing dizziness, fainting, confusion, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, weakness and tiredness.

Lower than normal blood pressure that doesn’t cause any symptoms in an otherwise healthy person usually doesn’t require any treatment. But it can cause older adults to fall resulting in broken bones and a decline in health.

Sudden severe drops in blood pressure starve the body of oxygen, which can lead to damage of the heart, brain and other organs.

While the UC San Diego team has only proven the solution on a single smartphone model, the clip’s current design theoretically should work on other phone models.

Dr Wang and one of his lab members, Colin Barry, a co-author on the paper who is an electrical and computer engineering student at UC San Diego, have now jointly founded a company, Billion Labs Inc, to refine and commercialise the technology.

The next steps include making the technology more user friendly, especially for older adults; testing its accuracy across different skin tones; and creating a more universal design.

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Tai chi outperforms conventional exercise for seniors

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New findings from 12 studies involving 2,901 participants have demonstrated that tai chi outperforms conventional exercise in improving mobility and balance in seniors.

While tai chi is understood to be beneficial for functional mobility and balance in older adults, such benefits are not well understood due to large variance in research study protocols and observations.

This new review and analysis has now shown that tai chi can induce greater improvement in functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults compared to conventional exercise.

The findings showed the following performance results:

  • The time to complete 50-foot walking was 1.84 seconds faster. 
  • The time to maintain a one-leg stance was 6 seconds longer when eyes were open and 1.65 seconds longer when eyes were closed. 
  • Individuals improved their timed-up-and-go test performance by 0.18 points, indicating quicker standing, walking, and sitting.
  • Individuals taking the functional reach test showed significant improvement with a standardised mean difference of 0.7, suggesting a noteworthy positive impact on the ability to reach and perform daily activities.

Secondary analyses revealed that the use of tai chi with relatively short duration of less than 20 weeks, low total time of less than 24 total hours, and/or focusing on the Yang-style of this ancient form of Chinese martial arts were particularly beneficial for functional mobility and balance as compared to conventional exercise.

“This systematic literature review and meta-analysis are exciting because they provide strong evidence that tai chi is a more efficient strategy to improve functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults, as compared to conventional exercise,” said Brad Manor, Ph.D., director of the Mobility and Falls Program at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“This research suggests that tai chi should be carefully considered in future studies and routines of rehabilitative programs for balance and mobility in older adults,” said Bao Dapeng, professor at Beijing Sport University.

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New standards for biomarkers of ageing

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A paper has put forward a new framework for standardising the development and validation of biomarkers of ageing to better predict longevity and quality of life.

Led by Harvard researchers, the team has zeroed in on biomarkers of ageing using omic data from population-based studies. 

The team included ageing and longevity expert Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, founder and CEO of AI-driven drug discovery company Insilico Medicine, and the findings appeared in Nature Medicine

Ageing is associated with a number of biological changes including increased molecular and cellular damage, however, researchers do not yet have a standardised means to evaluate and validate biomarkers related to ageing. 

In order to create those standards as well as actionable clinical tools, the team analysed population-based cohort studies built on omic data (data related to biological molecules which can include proteomics, transcriptomics, genomics, and epigenomics) of blood-based biomarkers of ageing. The researchers then compared the predictive strength of different biomarkers, including study design and data collection approaches, and looked at how these biomarkers presented in different populations. 

In order to better assess the impact of ageing using biomarkers, the researchers found that clinicians needed to expand their focus to consider not only mortality as an outcome, but also how biomarkers of aging are associated with numerous other health outcomes, including functional decline, frailty, chronic disease, and disability. They also call for the standardisation of omic data to improve reliability. 

“Omics and biomarkers harmonisation efforts, such as the Biolearn project, are instrumental in validation of biomarkers of aging” said co-first author Mahdi Moqri, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

Biolearn is an open-source project for biomarkers of aging and is helping to harmonise existing ageing biomarkers, unify public datasets, and provide computational methodologies.

The team also emphasised the importance of continued collaborations among research groups on “large-scale, longitudinal studies that can track long-term physiological changes and responses to therapeutics in diverse populations”, and that further work is required to understand how implementation of biomarker evaluation in clinical trials might improve patient quality of life and survival.

“If we hope to have clinical trials for interventions that extend healthy lifespan in humans, we need reliable, validated biomarkers of ageing,” said co-first author Jesse Poganik, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

“We hope that our framework will help prioritise the most promising biomarkers and provide health care providers with clinically valuable and actionable tools.”

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Healthy aging research to receive $115 million

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Global non-profit Hevolution Foundation has announced $115 million in funding that makes up 49 new awards under its Geroscience Research Opportunities (HF-GRO) programme.  

As part of Hevolution’s mission to catalyse the healthspan scientific ecosystem and drive transformative breakthroughs in healthy aging, HF-GRO is funding promising pre-clinical research in aging biology and geroscience. 

Through this first wave of HF-GRO awards, Hevolution will invest up to $115 million in this first cohort of 49 selected projects over the next five years. Its second call for proposals under HF-GRO will be announced later this year, offering an additional $115 million to address the significant funding gaps in aging research.  

Dr. Felipe Sierra, Hevolution’s Chief Scientific Officer stated: “These 49 important research projects represent a significant step forward in deepening our understanding of healthy aging. Hevolution’s prime objective is to mobilise greater investment around uncovering the foundational mechanisms behind biological aging. 

“We are steadfast in our belief that by examining the root causes of aging, rather than solely focusing on its associated diseases, we can usher in a brighter future for humanity.” 

HF-GRO awardees include researchers at prestigious institutions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, including the U.S. National Institute on Aging, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Buck Institute, the Mayo Clinic, New York University, and the University of California San Francisco, among many others. 

The American Federation for Aging Research is providing programmatic support for the HF-GRO program, with grantees selected through a rigorous two-stage peer-review process involving 100 experts in aging biology and geroscience. 

Dr Berenice Benayoun, an HF-GRO grant recipient at the University of Southern California, stated: “I am extremely honored and excited that Hevolution selected our project for funding. This is a project close to my heart, which aims at understanding why and how the female and male innate immune aging differs. 

“This funding will support us as we start laying the foundation for a lasting improvement of women’s health throughout aging.” 

To date, Hevolution has committed approximately $250 million to transform the healthy aging sector, including the $40 million for specialised research and development in healthspan science recently announced at Hevolution’s Global Healthspan Summit. 

Hevolution is ramping up its investments to enable healthier aging for all and is now the second largest funder of aging biology research worldwide.  

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