In the 20th century, we have added 25 years to our lifespan through various public health innovations, but we haven’t provided tools to help us use those additional years in the most productive and fulfilling way. In the 21st century, the challenge is to employ new tools and strategies to enable us to live healthier during those years–adding to our healthspan. We have already crossed the threshold where the demand for healthcare services is outstripping the supply of providers. And, by 2020, the number of people aged 65 plus will outnumber children younger than five years old for the first time in history.
"Technology, properly designed and implemented, can allow us to live a long, healthy life"
So, our first priority should be to enhance the healthspan, by giving people the tools needed to improve their health and inspire them to maintain healthy lifestyle choices. If we do this right, we will turn this growing cohort of older adults from being seen as a burden to one that is remaining vital, connected and adding value. And of course, connected health is a big part of the solution. There are multiple dimensions at play, but I want to touch on two areas that became clear to me while researching my recent book on aging and technology.
Digital technologies are creating a new kind of old, enabling individuals to remain vital, engaged and independent through their later years. But it has to be the right technology, designed for an aging population, not just what technologists and app developers think people want. Social robots, artificial intelligence, vocal biomarkers and facial decoding will analyze emotion, anticipate health problems, improve quality of life and enable better relationships with healthcare providers. It’s also about using data to better understand the ‘soft science’ of wellbeing and address the neglected crisis of caregiving. It’s a business model but, more so, it’s a new way of life.
My friend Charlotte Yeh from AARP enlightened me, to reimagine how we think about aging and rethink the scientific, clinical predictors of longevity–measures such as exposure to tobacco, high blood pressure, blood cholesterol level and the like. Of course, these are valid and important, but Charlotte opened my eyes to a different set of important measures. One is a sense of purpose. People who have some purposeful activity they pursue in retirement are healthier. The second is social connections. There is a remarkable body of evidence on this, and it turns out that isolation eats away at an individual and has the same effect on health as multiple packs of cigarettes a day! Finally, physical activity! This can range from taking the stairs or walking each day to going to the gym or even remaining a competitive athlete.
None of these measures are unique to aging, but to strip away the traditional, clinical science and break it down into these three simple predictors was liberating for me. Of course, the bonus is that connected health can play a role in all three, whether it is participating in the gig economy to drive purpose, being active on social media or FaceTime to keep up social connections, or tracking your steps on a Fitbit. All of these challenges are made easier by modern technology.
The second important insight driving new, increasing opportunities for personal health technologies has to do with managing chronic illness. As much as we had all like to stay healthy all our lives and die peacefully at a ripe old age, the fact is we all suffer from system wear and tear and require more illness management as time goes on. We are at the breakpoint as a society, to provide the resources needed to do this. Very soon, we won’t have enough healthcare providers and caregivers to tend to the aging population if we only rely on one-to-one care delivery models. We spend a lot of time in The New Mobile Age talking about how to use technology to create one-to-many care delivery models.
Particularly exciting is the work of some of early stage companies, paving the way for these new models of care, using emerging technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), voice recognition software, social robots and virtual reality (VR) technologies. With these companies as an example, we must take an innovative approach to address the challenges of keeping older adults engaged, vital and independent. Furthermore, it enhances opportunities to provide technology-enabled care for this rapidly growing population.
In fact, at a time when digital and connected health solutions are needed more than ever to stem this ‘Silver Tsunami,’ health tech innovations will not just improve healthcare for older adults, but will create a better and more responsive healthcare system for everyone.
The time is now to galvanize our efforts on this important topic. If we continue to insist that the only way to receive healthcare services is one-to-one in a physical location, we will drown in service demand. Technology, properly designed and implemented, can allow us to live a long, healthy life.