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A Few Words about this Year’s Challenge from the Center on Longevity

We at the Stanford Center on Longevity are pleased to be embarking on the second Longevity Design Challenge, in collaboration with Aging 2.0. During the early stages of last year’s challenge, we often joked that we were going to “throw a party and hope that someone will come”. We were truly gratified with the response – 52 teams from 31 universities in 15 different countries answered the call and submitted their solutions to “Maximizing Independence for those with Cognitive Impairment.” The breadth and the quality of the entries we received exceeded our expectations and emphatically answered the question of whether young people would be able to design great solutions for older people.

This year we take on a new topic – “Enabling Mobility Across the Life Span”. As Director of Mobility at the Center, it seems an appropriate time to share some thoughts on Mobility and the challenge. When we talk about Mobility – the ability to get around the world unassisted – we could just as easily say “personal independence” or “self-determination”. We see preserving this ability, or restoring it to those who have it restricted, as fundamental to creating a positive aging experience. And though on the whole people are reaching old age healthier than ever before, this trend is at risk due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles and to the chronic diseases associated with lack of movement. With that in mind, we will be looking for solutions in three areas: reducing sedentary behavior, increasing physical movement and exercise, and reducing barriers to movement in the home and community.

As one of the organizers of the Challenge, I am not a judge. I do this so that I can interact freely with the design teams and share my thoughts in forums like this without skewing the results. Our judging team comes from a broad swath of academia and industry, and each will bring their own unique viewpoint to the challenge that may or may not agree with my own.

A recent study from Stanford Professors of Medicine Uri Ladabaum, Ajitha Mannalithara, Parvathi A. Myer, and Gurkirpal Singh emphasizes just how dramatically sedentary behavior has increased in the U.S. Using self-report data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the study reports that during the window of 1988-1994, 11.4% of men and 19.1% of women reported that they got “no leisure time physical activity”. Looking at data from the same survey in 2009-2010, the percentages jumped to 47.9% and 51.7%, respectively. Those numbers are remarkable – in only 20 years, the number of truly sedentary individuals tripled to over half of the U.S. population. Real solutions are needed to reverse this trend now or the related health consequences could be huge. We ask our design teams to consider the reasons behind these shifts and what can be done to reverse them.

While increasing movement and exercise could be seen as the same as reducing sedentary behavior, we see them as related but separate challenges. Once we find ways to get people doing SOMETHING, we should then think about how to encourage them to build fitness and movement into their lives. While it can be dangerous to speculate on designs (I never would have predicted last year’s winner), the proliferation of low-cost wearable devices that track activity is likely to be a hot area this year and so probably warrants a few comments. I had the opportunity last year to attend the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and I was astonished at the number of new devices created specifically to measure activity level in some way. Clearly we have never had the opportunity to individually gather so much data on ourselves for so low a cost. What is most intriguing now is what we choose to do with that data and whether it will motivate people to alter their behavior in a positive way. With that in mind, design teams should understand that it is fine to build their solution on an existing platform as long as the solution brings new value to the table. For example, a solution that uses activity data from a fitness measuring watch does not need to recreate the watch, but rather just needs to do something valuable with that data. Non-technical solutions are also welcome – if a social program motivates people to move more, it is just as valuable as a something technical. We believe that results matter.

Thirdly, we recognize that some solutions to increasing mobility will come from changes we make to the physical world. Terms like “walkability” and “visitability” have emerged in recent years to describe the ways in which communities can encourage or restrict their residents’ abilities to get around. A great place to start if you are just developing your thinking about this is the World Health Organization’s Guide to Age-Friendly Cities, which discusses a number of ways in which communities encourage (or discourage) active aging. Several studies have described the positive effect that social groups can have on getting people moving. This area is also fair game for the challenge.

Finally, we would love to get solutions that we can’t even imagine when we start the challenge. If you have an idea that will increase movement and fitness, this is the time to bring it forward. Truly disruptive solutions are hard to find, but immensely valuable when they happen. Be fearless, let us know when you have questions, and have fun with this challenge. We certainly are.

Ken Smith
Director, Mobility Division
Stanford Center on Longevity



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  • Ronaldflaws October 21, 2022 - 12:59 pm Reply