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The robot companion that could soon be helping older people age better

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A cargo-carrying robot that follows you around could be the answer to promoting healthy ageing.

Research carried out by Newcastle University in the UK has shown the gita robot (pronounced jee-ta and spelt with a lowercase ‘g’) can support the mobility and wellbeing of older people.

The findings of the world-first citizen-led study have revealed gita – which looks like an over-sized medicine ball on wheels and has been designed to follow humans – has the potential to help alleviate loneliness in independent older people by prompting conversations and social interaction, as well as encouraging walking, and fostering independence and more sustainable living.

Dr Shuo Li, a research associate at Newcastle University’s School of Engineering, and lead author of the study, said it “demonstrates how future mobility and robotic innovations have the potential to address the global challenge of ageing.”

Designed by Boston-based robotics company Piaggio Fast Forward and backed by the Piaggio Group – the makers of the iconic Vespa scooter – gita was launched onto the US market in 2019 to help make everyday life easier, smarter, and more fun for humans of all ages.

Its sole purpose is to follow people wherever they go. Moving at a speed of up to six miles an hour and able to carry a load of 18kg in its internal cargo compartment, gita communicates through sound, light, touch and 360-degree vision.

Whilst gita can’t climb stairs, it can move around buildings with lifts and ramps as well as hard surfaces like pavements.

With one in six of the world’s population predicted to be aged over 65 by 2050 and growing numbers of older people needing care, the team at Newcastle University spotted the potential for gita robots to help foster more independent and sustainable living, as well as potentially lessening the effects of loneliness and isolation.

The researchers showed videos of an older adult interacting with the gita robot in a real-world setting to a group of study participants with an average age of 75, and analysed their feedback and requirements.

They indicated that the robot would physically support them when out for a walk, removing the need to carry things like groceries, and even acting as a seat. Several participants also suggested the robot could be useful for carrying items to help support them whilst out for a walk.

According to the Newcastle University team the results have also shown that gita can facilitate social interactions, such as gaining potential attention and acting as a talking point to help kickstart conversations.

A gita robot being trialled in Newcastle in the UK

Other aspects the researchers investigated included the perceived benefits for others in the community, any issues of the human-following robots, and requirements for improvements.

Many of the participants suggested they did not yet need the support of a human-following robot, given that they could still carry belongings or drive, but indicated it could be useful for maintaining their mobility and independence if their health were to decline or their circumstances changed in the future.

Follow-up research is now underway to examine and quantify older adults’ interaction with a human-following robot in a real-world context.

The study has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports and is based on final-year research undertaken by former Master of Engineering (Meng) student, Kirsty Milligan, who was supervised by Professor Phil Blythe and Dr Shuo Li.

The civil engineering graduate said: “My research project was a valuable opportunity for me to try something a bit different as part of the final year of my MEng degree, and it was really interesting to explore whether such an innovative technology has the potential to support active ageing.

“I enjoyed talking to the participants and hearing their thoughts on the robot, as well as learning more about research methods and qualitative data analysis.

“It is really exciting that a paper based on my work has been published, and I hope it inspires others to further explore the use of these types of technologies by older people.

“I’ll be interested to see where future research in this area goes, and if maybe we will see these types of robots in everyday use one day.”

The gita robots are being tested by the team at the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) on Tyneside, a world-leading organisation supported by an initial investment from the UK government and Newcastle University, which is looking at ways of co-developing and bringing to market products and services to create an environment in which people can live better for longer.

Gita will follow behind and can carry up to 18kg of belongings

NICA’s director and one of the study’s co-authors is Professor Nic Palmarini. He said: “This is an example of how emerging technologies can help tackle and mitigate isolation and support older adults’ engagement in outdoor activities, a crucial driver to population’s health and longevity.

“This is a great example of what we have defined as ‘ageing Intelligence’ at work and is part of our wider research on supporting mobility for our older citizens.”

Phil Blythe, professor of Intelligent Transport Systems, and head of the Future Mobility Group at Newcastle University, who also co-authored the study, added: “We believe that research into supporting the mobility of older people and ensuring they have transport systems and services that are fit for purpose is critical for a fair and levelled up society.

“This is one of the key areas of my group’s research where we are always looking for future technologies that can improve the mobility of all.”

The researchers argue that while these robots offer advantages, there is a need for additional improvements to their design to fully support older people.

They say it is crucial to take into account the needs and demands of older individuals when creating and advancing age-friendly robots that can follow humans.

Limitations highlighted in the study include the possible negative interactions between the robot and others. The researchers suggest considering future iterations of the robot that address these concerns, such as implementing a security system that connects to a remote operator.

According to the study’s results, robot developers and innovators must focus on improving the robots’ ability to navigate kerbs, steps, and diverse terrain for them to be practical for most elderly people.

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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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