Sandia & UNM Studying Hikers Health

Hiking from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other in one day requires motivated and resilient athletes. These athletes are now helping researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico (UNM) collect and study biometric data. The information will be used to determine if declines in physical or cognitive functions can predict a medical emergency.

The rim-to-rim hike is the equivalent of a marathon in distance, with a one mile change in elevation and temperatures that range from below 30 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 110 degrees.

During peak spring and fall sessions, as many as 1,100 people per weekend set out on a rim-to-rim hike. About 350 people are rescued from the Grand Canyon each year with over about 160 to 180 of those hikers rescued by helicopter.

The research project funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has joined an existing study of rim-to-rim hikers conducted by UNM. The UNM investigation began in 2015 in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) with surveys of hikers at the start and end of their hikes.

To study this problem, the project called “Rim-to-Rim Wearables at the Canyon for Health” (R2R WATCH) is being conducted to draw on the research team’s expertise in biology and cognitive science.

Volunteers for the ongoing three year study take surveys, perform cognitive tests, submit basic medical information to the researchers such as weight, blood pressure, and also provide blood samples along with data from wearable fitness devices.

Study participants take tests that measure their working memory and other cognitive factors to be used as early health indicators of performance. Two of the study’s goals are to determine how commercial off-the-shelf devices work best in extreme environments and then identify the physiological and cognitive markers that provide the earliest yet reliable indication of health decline.

“The project enables us to use real-time data collection and quantitatively show how markers relate to a non-laboratory, mission-relatable performance task,” reports Sandia Researcher Glory Avina, Principal. Investigator for the project, “Findings on individual markers will also inform us as to which wearable devices are most useful both in the attributes they measure and the logistics of use.”

In addition, Avina is using Sandia’s expertise in device development and cybersecurity to identify how data can best be connected and protected since network connectivity in the Grand Canyon is inconsistent and unreliable.



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