Smart beds: Monitoring health during sleep


By Linda Huestis

Imagine a bed that monitors an older adult’s health while they sleep and alerts a health-care provider if there are potential problems.

That’s the goal of a groundbreaking research project that uses pressure sensor technology to help predict and prevent health problems by analyzing clues such as movement, breathing and fluid retention. The project is funded by AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network.

Pressure ulcers are one area of focus, says Dr. Frank Knoefel, project co-lead and a physician at Bruyère Continuing Care in Ottawa. A significant concern for people who cannot easily change positions in bed, pressure ulcers can cause severe pain, are difficult to heal and can become infected. They typically occur where a boney part of the body like a hip or heel presses against the skin.

By placing a mat equipped with hundreds of sensors under a mattress, Dr. Knoefel and co-lead Dr. Rafik Goubran are able to track how, and how much, someone moves during sleep. They’ve also correlated the amount of movement with blood flow by comparing the movement of patients’ heels overnight with pictures taken in the morning using a thermal camera. A heel that hasn’t moved appears “cold,” signaling a lack of blood circulation that could lead to a pressure ulcer.

The potential for prevention is significant. Dr. Knoefel imagines a simple alarm system in a hospital or long-term care setting in which “a little red light goes on at the nursing station saying, ‘Mr. Jones in bed four needs to be turned.’” And for older adults living at home, a “smart bed” could tip off a family caregiver or attendant to the need for repositioning.

The research team has also used the pressure sensor system to monitor the irregular breathing patterns associated with sleep apnea. A clinical trial will be conducted to test the mat’s ability to detect nighttime fluid build-up associated with congestive heart failure, a debilitating condition common in older adults.

Although pressure sensor technology is not new, the team’s expertise is developing sophisticated algorithms to sort through the data and extract information and patterns that are valuable to clinicians—an innovative reimagining of the technology. “It’s extremely complex, but extremely rewarding,” says Dr. Goubran, vice president, Research and International, at Carleton University.

The technology is being developed at a new AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub in Ottawa called Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory (SAM3). A joint initiative of AGE-WELL, Bruyère Research Institute and Carleton University, the hub is focused on smart technologies that monitor seniors’ health and wellbeing―to keep them as healthy, safe and independent as possible.

Dr. Goubran notes that moving the pressure-sensitive mat concept to market will require the involvement of a wide variety of sectors, including telecommunication and network communications, data analytics and healthcare monitoring. Partnerships are already in place with three major companies.

The team believes the “smart bed” holds great promise for keeping older adults healthy and at home. Dr. Knoefel uses the example of someone’s bed sending daily health status reports to a home care nurse, allowing early intervention if there are signs of problems.

“This is like a bedside nurse 24 hours a day,” he says.

Linda Huestis is a freelance writer. AGE-WELL is a federally funded Network of Centres of Excellence that is harnessing the power of new technologies to benefit older adults and caregivers. The pan-Canadian network brings together researchers, industry, non-profits, government, care providers and end-users to develop solutions for healthy aging. For more information, visit