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Your Future Body

Your future body
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BY OKSANA BADRAK

The app is continuously collecting data from three little jewels on your right arm. They look like bling but are actually medical-grade sensors that measure your activity level, heart rate, caloric intake and other vitals. This high-tech body monitoring is actually an affordable reality right now. The BodyMedia Wireless LINK armband ($149) is just one such device already on the market. It collects biometric physiological data to calculate calorie burn and sends that information to a smartphone in real time. And the devices will just keep getting smaller. Proteus Digital Health has developed a sensor so tiny it fits inside a pill. Swallowed, it will track medications as they pass through your body, sending physiological data via a wearable patch to your smartphone (or a caregiver). As sensors shrink even further, we may have them embedded in our bodies, says Eric Topol, M.D., chief academic officer of Scripps Health in San Diego. "You could have a sensor the size of a grain of sand in your bloodstream that provides early detection of cancer, heart attack or type 1 diabetes," he says.

Meanwhile, a quick scan of your data reveals stress stats are a bit high. Your husband's numbers remind him that he should watch his cholesterol and pass on the steak. While checking in virtually on other family members, you notice your 99-year-old mother's blood pressure is a little low.

Going forward, as more people opt to wear some form of body monitor, sharing health data with family and friends will change the way we care for loved ones. Eventually, you may be able to access information about your aging mom no matter where she lives, simply by glancing at your phone. The bottom line: Life as a member of the so-called Sandwich Generation could become a lot simpler and less stressful.

Another area in which tech advances could make a significant difference in longevity is tissue engineering. "This may be the next great advance in medicine," says Nina Tandon, Ph.D., an electrical and biomedical engineer at Columbia University who is researching how to grow cardiac cells in the lab. Body parts like cartilage, ligaments and skin are easier to replicate than complicated hearts and livers, says Tandon. "In the not-too-distant future, you may have a conversation with your doctor about, for instance, whether you should have ligament surgery now or wait five weeks to grow a new one," she says.

Soon, too, prosthetics will mimic real limbs to a mind-boggling degree. "After seeing amputees compete at the Olympic level, I think people will start to look at prostheses in an entirely different way," says Alena Grabowski, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Colorado Locomotion Laboratory. "Today's leg prostheses are already functional, but smart prostheses, those that can move in response to a person's intent and offer sensory feedback so you can 'feel' what a plastic or metal limb touches, are on the drawing board."

Even more sci-fi is the idea of prostheses that enhance natural ability. Companies like the California-based Ekso Bionics are currently building mechanical exoskeletons that help paraplegics walk. This technology may one day be used to help ordinary people accomplish extraordinary tasks such as climbing mountains or lifting objects many times the person's size.

Suffice it to say, in 10 years you won't quite be in Bionic Woman territory -- but you can probably expect to live longer, with a better quality of life. The same technology that makes smartphones and iPads so smart is about to change our bodies for the better. And the future -- seen clearly through corneal inlays -- has never looked brighter.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.