Eric Duhamel started Orthex, a company offering pillows to aid sleep.

Forget envying youth for their youth; it’s their deep sleep we most desire. Increased waking in the night, or waking earlier in the morning, just seems to come with age, but it’s not because we need less sleep. In fact, as we age, we need the same amount of sleep as all adults — between seven and nine hours. Without it, we’re sabotaging our daytime efforts to age healthily. Poor sleep can lead to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, inflammation, obesity and depression, not to mention a weaker immune system. But don’t lose sleep over it. 

Here are three Canadian visionaries who are developing innovative ways to help you rest easy, whether you’re counting sheep or someone else is keeping you up at night.

Assume the position: Eric Duhamel

Working at a Quebec retail chain that sold electric beds for four years was illuminating for then-23-year-old Eric Duhamel. “I’d see customers come in with multiple sleep-related issues, such as poor digestion (acid reflux), blood flow concerns, breathing issues and pain. The trouble is that electric beds are too expensive for most people.” Equipped with a business and biomedical background, the recent university graduate thought, “Why not create a simple wedge that would incline the body the same as an electric bed?”

When market research proved not only that 80 percent of people have sleep issues and 43 percent of those are due to poor sleep postures, Orthex was born. “When we sleep there is no muscle tension in our body. One objective of muscle tension is to protect the body structure and keep it aligned where it should be,” explains Duhamel. That means back sleepers, for example, are likely to experience no lumbar support and breathing issues, while side sleepers can experience a shoulder out of alignment.

With the help of a five-person team of healthcare collaborators, Orthex carefully designed a line of posture cushions and pillows, each with the proper angles, dimensions and firmness to improve sleep. The top seller, an orthopedic wedge, props up back sleepers at a 23- or an 18-degree angle (for people 5’8 [173 cm] and under), and has been shown to ameliorate pain, digestion and breathing issues in up to 92 percent of users, according to company research. Orthex’s back and side sleeper pillows are designed to alleviate shoulder and neck pain, two very different problems, says Duhamel. “Our research showed that up to 70 percent of people having neck tension with pillows were able to increase their amount of restful sleep.” 

There are a host of other sleep solutions, available at Wellwise by Shoppers Drug Mart, including a neck or lower-back ergonomic pillow to provide cervical or lumbar support. 

“People spend a lot of money on physiotherapy, chiropractic and massage therapy, and pay attention to their posture in the day,” says Duhamel, adding that managing nighttime sleep posture can complement strategies to alleviate pain and improve sleep.

Breathe easy: Dr. Douglas Bradley 

Eight years ago, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care approached Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – University Health Network to develop a more cost-effective and convenient way to monitor sleep issues than transporting older individuals to an overnight laboratory to monitor them. 

At the same time, Dr. Douglas Bradley, senior investigator and director, Sleep Research Laboratories at TRI and Toronto General Hospital, and director, Division of Respirology at University of Toronto, received a phone call from an international physician and acoustic engineer who said he could diagnose sleep apnea – a disorder in which breathing frequently stops and starts – from breathing sounds: “We thought it was crazy, but then quickly thought, ‘Hey, there could be something here.’” 

Dr. Hisham Alshaer came to Toronto as Dr. Bradley’s PhD student and, together with Dr. Geoff Fernie, a biomedical engineer and senior scientist at Toronto Rehab, they founded BresoTec Inc. around a device called BresoDx.

The device – a portable, self-contained, single-user face strap – uses proprietary acoustic and movement recording technology to help detect sleep apnea, which affects about 10 percent of adults globally but is not widely diagnosed, especially outside North America. 

Sleep apnea causes quality of life issues as well as health and safety concerns, including increased risk of traffic accidents, high blood pressure, stroke and heart failure. 

“Up to 85 percent of sleep apnea goes underdiagnosed because many people don’t have access to a sleep clinic or lab, and home sleep testing devices are not very user friendly,” says Dr. Bradley. It’s especially challenging to diagnose people with mobility or cognitive issues for whom an overnight stay in a lab is difficult.“We have a simpler device that will help diagnose a lot more people.”

The BresoDx contains an embedded microphone that captures breathing sounds from the nose and mouth and records those sounds through software developed to analyze not just whether there is sleep apnea, but how severe it is, and whether there is also snoring and how much (too much, if you’re sleeping beside someone who does it). 

“The BresoDx is unique because it’s the only device that relies primarily on acoustics,” says Dr. Bradley, adding it’s 95 percent in agreement with laboratory sleep equipment. And because there are no electrodes attached to the body, it’s more reliable and easier to use (if you’ve done an overnight test in a lab, you know how little sleep you actually get). “Sleep labs hook up 14 electrodes to your body, which means you spend way more time on your back than you would at home. The test may overestimate how severe your sleep apnea is.” 

Worried you (or someone you care about) has sleep apnea? You can purchase a BresoDx directly at www.bresotec.com or ask your physician to order you one for $250. “Clinics can get them for a wholesale rate,” says Bradley, adding that provincial healthcare coverage is pending. 

A sleep angel: Dr. Frank Knoefel

Without adequate caregiver support in place at home, Dr. Frank Knoefel was never happy discharging older people following major surgeries. At the same time, he noted how technology that allowed people to smart wire their homes remotely was on the rise, and got to thinking, “Why not take this technology and have a sociologically appropriate use for it?” So the physician at Bruyère Continuing Care and assistant professor at University of Ottawa joined forces with engineer Rafik Goubran, a professor and dean at Carleton University and research scientist at Bruyère Research Institute. Together they began testing a pressure-sensitive pad that is placed under the mattress. 

Twelve years on, the results are astounding. Thanks to sophisticated algorithms that allow sensors on the pads to extract information and patterns, the devices can alert patients, caregivers and medical professionals to deviations in a person’s vital signs, activity and mobility. 

For example, the pad “can pick up breathing rhythms associated with sleep apnea with 96 percent correctness—the same level as that in an expensive overnight sleep lab,” says Dr. Knoefel, who is also an investigator with AGE-WELL. The mat can also assess the mobility and movement of a person lying in bed, helping caregivers prevent pressure ulcers and detect fluid buildup, which is associated with congestive heart failure.

There is major potential for this sensor technology, not just for self-monitoring sleep and ultimately improving it, but also for detecting much bigger health issues in an unobtrusive way, says Dr. Knoefel. That’s the focus of an AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub in Ottawa, a joint initiative of AGE-WELL, Bruyère Research Institute and Carleton University. Launched in 2017, the Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory hub advances the development of sensor-based smart technologies that monitor older people’s health and wellbeing – to keep them as healthy, safe and independent as possible.

Recent work has led to the creation of a new anti-wandering feature that alerts a caregiver should a person with dementia attempt to leave the house during the night. The system uses motion, contact, and bed sensors to detect the sleeper’s movements if they wander out of bed.

The mat is in final development and is expected to be available to the public in about two years.

Originally published in Issue 02 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine. PG. 56