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HEALTH

I’ve been to the future and it really aches

A Berlin hospital has found a novel way to give medical students a taste of life at 75. A suit which stiffens the joints, distorts the vision and makes everything difficult to do. James Gheerbrant climbed inside it to seek the wisdom of ages.

I've been to the future and it really aches
A fellow time-traveller in the suit. Photo: Evangelical Geriatrics Centre

When I catch my reflection in a mirror, I look not unlike an astronaut. A stiff, bulky bodysuit covers me from neck to ankle; thick white gloves protect my hands; my head is concealed beneath a sturdy silver helmet. A visor is secured over my eyes: everything is covered.

Under the suit I am also wearing a vest that is rigid and heavy like a Kevlar jacket, and straps that fasten tightly over my knees and ankles. As I extend one tightly swaddled leg in front of the other, I can’t help but imagine that I am beginning the solemn walk towards some distant launch-pad. But this is not space travel. This, in its own way, is time travel.

My futuristic ensemble was actually the Age Man Suit, a garment that simulates the physical effects of ageing. In a small room of Berlin’s Evangelical Geriatrics Centre, I experienced the real final frontier: old age.

“The suit mimics the feeling of being roughly 75 years old,” geriatrist Dr Rahel Eckardt said. At least, that’s what I think she said – the helmet contains ear-defenders that impaired my hearing.

A litany of new complaints

This was just one of a litany of other newly acquired complaints which included reduced vision courtesy of the yellow visor that replicated the effect of cataracts; diminished dexterity from the thick, cumbersome gloves; and, legacy of my weighted limbs and torso, a suddenly alien heaviness that I could only faintly compare to the sensation of taking to a pool fully-clothed for a swim test.

The unfamiliar disconnect between mind and body was particularly troubling; it was almost as if I had to consciously will parts of my body into motion. One small step for man was suddenly one giant feat of manoeuvre.

But it was not just my body which had to come to terms with the effects of the suit.

Eckardt guided me through a range of everyday tasks that would normally be accomplished without conscious effort – picking coins up off the floor, removing tablets from a blister pack, even telling two differently coloured shirts apart.

My feelings of frustration, helplessness and indignity built with surprising rapidity, as my usually sharp 21-year-old faculties were thwarted by creaking joints, fumbling fingers and treacherous eyesight.

For me the experience was extraordinary but for Eckardt transforming sprightly young people into slower, older ones is all in a day’s work. The Age Man Suit, she said, has been as much a part of her equipment as scrubs and a stethoscope since 2004. The question of why has approximately 16.8 million answers.

The future belongs to the old

That figure represents the number of Germans older than 65 – the United Nations says that at 20.6 percent of the population, only Monaco and Japan boast a greater proportion of pensionable citizens.

It may be counter-intuitive to imagine anyone but the younger generation at the forefront of societal changes – but in Germany the fastest-growing population group is the over-85s. Welcome to the developed world in the 21st century, where the future belongs to the old.

When Eckardt completed her medical studies at Berlin’s Free University in the mid-90s, geriatrics as a subject did not even exist. For the new generation of aspiring doctors, such a gap in the syllabus is unthinkable.

Already 14 percent of hospital patients are over 80, and this figure will rise to more than 20 percent by 2030 according to the Federal Statistics Office.

This represents a slow-motion epidemic which will challenge every aspect of medical care – yet because it is not dramatic or glamorous, it is not attracting new doctors.

The dreams of aspiring medics are simply not often filled with ideas of day-to-day management of long-term conditions like dementia and arthritis.

Harnessing empathy

Few of the wide-eyed white-coated ingénues who come under Eckardt’s tutelage in the ninth semester of their studies at Berlin’s Charité teaching hospital will have considered a career in their mentor’s branch. But there is one trump card remaining to Eckardt and her colleagues – I was in it.

The Age Man Suit aims to harness the instinct that will have brought many medical students this far down their vocational path – empathy. The doctors of the future may not be able to walk a mile in the shoes of their prospective senior patients, but a short creaky walk across the floor and a slow, difficult encounter with stairs creates understanding.

Naturally the session with the Age Man Suit was not entirely serious in tone: in their prematurely superannuated guise, my fellow initiates attracted raucous laughter and cries of, “Over here, Grandpa!” from their assembled cohorts.

But it was interesting to note that most of the derision came from those who had not yet tried on the suit; the others were rather more pensive. One even said he found the experience “depressing”.

My ten minutes was soon up, and Eckardt zipped me out of the suit and removed my helmet to bring me back from the future.

The outfit was developed by Gundolf Meyer-Hentschel in the 1980s and is still manufactured by the company that bears his name. As well as its use in the training of medical students, the suit is also frequently employed by industrial designers seeking to better tailor their products to older clients, and has even been worn by actors in order to get into character for a play.

All would testify to the validity of Meyer-Hentschel’s original mission statement: “Things that people have not yet lived through can only be understood through personal experience.”

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HEALTH

Monkeypox in Germany: Two teens ‘among new infections’

Two teenage boys between the ages of 15-17 have reportedly been infected by monkeypox, as the number of cases in Germany continues to grow.

Monkeypox in Germany: Two teens 'among new infections'

German news site Spiegel Online first reported the new cases – which are an anomaly for a virus as it has mostly affected gay men – following an inquiry to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). 

They are among a total of 2,677 people who are confirmed to have contracted the virus in Germany to date. There have not been any fatalities.

Out of these, only five cases were women, according to the RKI. The public health institute said that it does not release information on individual cases.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany wants to contain the monkeypox

The disease – which is not usually fatal – often manifests itself through fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion and a chickenpox-like rash on the hands and face.

The virus can be transmitted through contact with skin lesions and droplets of a contaminated person, as well as through shared items such as bedding and towels.

Many of the cases known so far concern homosexual and bisexual men. However, affected people and experts have repeatedly warned against stigmatising gay communities.

How fatal is the disease?

The first monkeypox cases were reported in Germany on May 20th, as the disease continued to spread in West Europe.

At the weekend, the first two deaths outside of West Africa were reported in Spain.

READ ALSO: WHO warns ‘high’ risk of monkeypox in Europe as it declares health emergency

The RKI has urged people returning from West Africa and in particular gay men, to see their doctors quickly if they notice any chances on their skin.

According to the latest estimates, there are 23,000 monkeypox cases worldwide, and Europe is particularly affected with 14,000 cases.

There have been 2,677 monkeypox cases in Germany as of August 2, 2022. Photo: CDC handout

About eight percent of patients in Europe have been hospitalised so far, reported the World Health Association on Monday, mostly due to severe pain or additional infections.

In general, the mortality of the variant currently circulating in Europe is estimated to be low.

READ ALSO: More cases of monkeypox ‘expected’ in Germany

Will a vaccine make a difference?

Since July, a vaccine has been authorised in 27 EU member states and in Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. 

The Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) recommends vaccination against monkeypox in Germany for certain risk groups and people who have had close contact with infected people.

So far, the German government has ordered 240,000 vaccine doses, of which 40,000 had been delivered by Friday. 

Around 200,000 doses are set to follow by the end of September. 

The German Aids Federation (DAH) on Friday called for one million vaccine doses, stressing that the current supplies will fall short of meeting need.

“The goal must be to reduce the number of infections as quickly as possible and to get the epidemic permanently under control,” explained Ulf Kristal of the DAH board in Berlin on Friday.

But this is only possible, he said, if as many people at risk of infection as possible are vaccinated.

“We don’t assume the epidemic will be over when the doses available so far have been vaccinated,” Axel Jeremias Schmidt, Epidemiologist and DAH Consultant for Medicine and Health Policy, wrote in a press release.

As long as there are monkeypox infections, he said, people who are at risk must be offered vaccination. 

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