Sensors can help assisted living community staff members address illness and slow functional decline in residents by enabling the early detection of issues, according to the results of a newly published study.

Researchers from the University of Missouri placed sensors in the rooms of 86 assisted living residents, and 85 other residents received usual care. The 171 study participants lived in a total of 13 assisted living communities.

Motion sensors continuously measured overall activity; an under-mattress sensor captured data on breathing, pulse and restlessness during sleep; and a gait sensor measured gait speed and stride length and time while also assessing fall risk. Residents lived with the sensor systems for a year, on average.

Staff members received alerts when sensor data patterns changed. Nurses received the alerts via email every morning for the previous 24 hours. The emails were very simple, with messages such as: “Resident 14, apartment 6, increase in bed restlessness during the night.” They also received real-time fall alerts, so staff could respond quickly when people in the sensor group fell.

The researchers found that functional decline was more rapid in the group of residents who received regular care compared with those who were monitored with sensors. Based on other studies of the same sensor system, they believe that using the technology can cut costs.

“With the innovative technological solutions like the ones we tested in this study, elders can benefit from early detection and recognition of small changes in health conditions,” the authors wrote in the October issue of JAMDA. Early detection, they added, can help residents live independently and keep them out of the hospital or nursing home by allowing treatment to be delivered when it is most effective.

Another senior living study involving many of the same researchers found that sensors measuring gait speed and stride length helped predict the likelihood that an older adult would fall up to three weeks in advance.