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Silver Linings: Famed NH inventor helping older people stay on their feet

By GRETCHEN M. GROSKY
New Hampshire Union Leader

November 06. 2017 1:28PM
Sam Asano, center, holds his new invention to help detect falls in older people. It's a shoe insert that links to the UmeLink smartphone app and will trigger a call to the authorities when a fall occurs. Here he is shown with his partners Tom Ayer, left, and Alessandro Levi Montalcini. (GRETCHEN GROSKY/UNION LEADER)

Sam Asano has changed the way many do business by inventing things like the small office fax machine and the electronic pad people sign when they use their credit cards.

But now the Portsmouth man named by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as one of the most influential inventors of the 20th century is using his creativity to help older people live more safely.

Asano’s company UmeLink Inc. is expected to go to market next year with foam shoe inserts that detect when a person falls and notifies authorities if a person needs help. He said it will replace those alert buttons worn around the neck.

He said that type of technology “has not progressed in years” even though falls have become the leading cause of injury and death for Americans 65 and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an older person falls every second in the United States, and the associated annual cost to Medicare is estimated to be over $31 billion a year.

The Community Resource Network estimates that 75,638 older Granite Staters suffered a fall in 2016, resulting in $831.4 million in health care costs.

This shoe insert developed by Portsmouth inventor Sam Asano links to a smartphone app and will trigger a call to the authorities when a fall occurs. (GRETCHEN GROSKY/UNION LEADER)

Asano, who writes the weekly “Let’s Invent” column for the Union Leader, decided to tackle the technology after an 87-year-old neighbor fell down a flight of stairs and was unable to press the personal emergency response button around her neck.

“The one time she needed it in 10 years, it didn’t work,” Asano said.

He looked at more than 300 research papers that all called for fall prevention systems, but he said “that’s a battle they will never win.”

Asano then started looking more into the necklace systems and he said he found high-pressure sales and monthly costs of $65 or more. He said they are also not useful when someone is unconscious, pinned or too injured to hit the button. His research found that pushing the button was only 55 percent effective.

So Asano developed the shoe inserts with the Japanese tabi shoes in mind. They are foam, can fit into shoes or slippers, and are washable. It pairs with the UmeLink smartphone app and automatically sends a call to the person if the insert detects a fall. If the person does not pick up or says they need help, authorities are notified.

When it goes to market in 2018, Asano said not only will it be cheaper than the current wear-around-your-neck alert systems, it will have the ability to travel with the person anywhere in the world. With most current systems, the person must stay within the home in order for it to work, Asano said. 

He hopes to soon put his invention into socks. He said this will be important for diabetics who are told by doctors to wear socks to bed. He also said 85 percent of falls happen between the bedroom and the bathroom. 

Asano said the product is being field tested and that his company will focus solely on products for older Americans in the future.

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at ggrosky@unionleader.com or 206-7739. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging.


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