the canada issue

Odds are you will live past 100

Alex Mihailidis wants to make sure longer lifespans are about quality by Althea Blackburn-Evans

Alex Mihailidis_R

Canadians have never been older. We live in a country replete with Baby Boomers who, with the help of advances in medical science, are set to live longer than ever before. By 2063 more than 62,000 of us will be over 100, a population nine times higher than in 2013. But do we – should we – really want to reach triple digits?

Associate professor Alex Mihailidis answers this question with caution, and optimism. “It depends on whether those additional years we’re living are actually quality years. It’s not about increasing the number of years we live for, it’s about increasing the number of years in which we can have good quality of life.”

That’s what Mihailidis and colleagues across the country aim to do with AGE-WELL, a cross-Canada network of academics, industry, non-profits and government focused on developing new tools and technologies to make aging more manageable for seniors and those who help care for them.

The multidisciplinary network is the first of its kind to focus on technology and aging. With $36 million from the federal government, AGE-WELL has 25 projects on the go – from creating new ways for seniors to increase their mobility and monitor their own health, to exploring ethical issues that come with using robotics or artificial intelligence to support a vulnerable population.

One project in Mihailidis’s own research area uses motion sensors in the home to predict dementia. The algorithms developed by his PhD student, Ahmad Akl, track activity levels and living patterns to detect cognitive impairment with 92 per cent accuracy, he says. “That’s quite exciting, leading edge stuff.”

Mihailidis, the Barbara G. Stymiest Research Chair in Rehabilitation Technology at U of T and Toronto Rehab Institute, was tapped to co-lead the network thanks to the multidisciplinary nature of his own work. A mechanical engineer by trade, he now has appointments in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, and the Department of Computer Science. “Because I’m an engineer, a professor in occupational therapy, and a research chair at Toronto Rehab, my team is a mixture of every discipline you can possibly think of in this area.”

Among the network’s early milestones is its first startup company, Braze Mobility. Created by post-doc Pooja Viswanathan, the company offers an intelligent add-on to powered wheelchairs to help users avoid collisions. It opens a new door for people who would otherwise be unable to use a motorized chair. “They may have visual-perceptual challenges, or they may not be able to see obstacles or react in time,” Viswanathan told CTV News recently. Viswanathan is working with the Ontario Brain Institute to further develop and market the product.

AGE-WELL’s work has a significant training component, too. A recently-launched certificate program is already nurturing over 150 trainees – including researchers, entrepreneurs and healthcare providers – to play leading roles in this relatively young field. Mihailidis says the key is fostering a culture of collaboration. “We want to make sure our trainees – whether they’re engineers, gerontologists or psychologists – gain that transdisciplinary knowledge and approach in the area of technology and aging.”