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Helping Translational Research Meet the Needs of Older Adults

Mark Redfern receives an NIH award to establish a new program in the Human Factors of Aging to inform, support, and advance research focused on improving the lives of older adults

PITTSBURGH (Feb. 8, 2021) … In this digital age, where the internet accelerates technological development, there has been a surge of scientific innovation designed to improve the quality of life for patients in need. However, there are physical, cognitive, and sensory issues that are often overlooked during the process, resulting in poor design for a particular user group –adults aged 65 and older. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this group will comprise more than 20 percent of the U.S. population starting in 2030.

Highlighting the importance for safety and efficacy, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration has made incorporating human factors a priority for device approval which can significantly impact the road to commercialization, leaving many researchers stuck in the design phase. Unfortunately, many of these technologies and interventions struggle to advance to commercialization.

A new program at the University of Pittsburgh hopes to help investigators navigate this common roadblock. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Professor Mark Redfern will establish a Human Factors of Aging program at Pitt to inform, support, and advance the translation of research focused on improving the lives of older adults. 

“There are a huge number of factors to take into consideration when designing for older adults, and with this program, we hope to educate our investigators and innovators and create a collaborative community to help translate research across the University,” said Redfern, professor of bioengineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

In 2018, Redfern spent part of a sabbatical at the FDA to learn more about how human factors are evaluated. He will use this knowledge along with his 20 years of experience in human factors and aging research to help investigators at Pitt advance their work. 

“Many changes occur with age that should be considered in design. For example, vision changes can include loss of acuity, contrast sensitivity, depth perception and field of view, making a display more difficult to see.  Physical changes such as reduced strength and struggles with balance can also occur, making devices designed for mobility perhaps more difficult to use,” he explained. “On the cognitive side, memory and attention may be an issue so developers must design a product understanding these limitations.

“My goal is to help make our investigators aware of these factors that they may not have otherwise considered as they think of translating their research into action.”

Redfern will use this K07 award to educate investigators, their post-doctoral researchers and graduate students.  He currently teaches a course on Human Factors Engineering of Medical Devices for engineering students, but now wants to develop courses and workshops more broadly for the University community. He will also use the Human Factors Laboratory within the Human Movement and Balance Laboratory to help them develop and test prototypes. 

As part of the program, Redfern hopes to bring together a network of people with a vested interest in aging research – from engineers and clinicians to companies and University centers.

“One of the most exciting things is our partnership with Pitt’s Alzheimer's Disease Research Center,” Redfern said. “Their knowledge about the impact of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease on functional capabilities will be integrated into the program to improve design for older adults with these challenges. This collaboration will give program participants a practical and robust education on the human factors of aging.”

Ultimately, he hopes that this program will advance the world-class translational research at Pitt and have a positive impact on the lives of older adults. If successful, he will develop resources to extend the program nationally.

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Contact: Leah Russell