Despite the fact that the elderly account for the greatest proportion of patients for certain ailments, they are often underrepresented in medical research. In addition to explicit exclusion criteria included in many trials, scientists and drug companies are often loath to include senior citizens in their studies because of the myriad logistical challenges that old age presents. Elderly individuals might not have the mobility to travel to investigational sites, and they’re often less willing to switch physicians from the ones they’ve come to know and trust.
To encourage more participation in research among the over-65 crowd, an independent living facility at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is now trying to rethink what a study site has to look like.
On the fourth floor of a 21-story residential building, Mayo researchers have built a ‘living lab’ that spans 51,000 square feet and includes two mock-up apartments and rooms for convening focus groups. A small section on the floor above houses treadmills, electrocardiographs and other devices to measure physiology. Beyond simply bringing health studies closer to the elderly residents of the building, the research space has substantial built-in video recording infrastructure, allowing improved observation of how certain products and test ideas fare.
The combined space, known as the Healthy Aging and Independent Living (HAIL) lab, was established in 2011 at a retirement home called Charter House, which is affiliated with—and physically connected to—Mayo. In the past couple years, the HAIL lab has partnered with companies such as General Mills, United Healthcare and Best Buy to look at, for example, the acceptance of technology by the elderly. For now, the endeavor is concentrated on projects that are simple or observational, such as user feedback on products and exploring how video game participation might influence health in the elderly. However, “in the next five years, clinical trials with pharmacological agents might be forthcoming,” says Nicholas LaRusso, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation.
The vision of providing improved health research for the elderly is shared by another HAIL partner, the Good Samaritan Society, the largest nonprofit provider of senior care and services in the US. In an ongoing independent 1,200-person study at 5 of its 240 senior care facilities, the Good Samaritan Society is looking at the benefit of motion sensor technology. It has thus far found that the technology can detect repeat trips to the bathroom, which could indicate a urinary tract infection.
Kelly Soyland, director of innovation at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota–based society, says that his team has started exploring the idea of more traditional clinical research at some of their facilities at some point down the road: “We’re building the organizational capacity to work in that formal research space.”