It’s no secret that the population of people 65 and older is growing dramatically. Due to life-saving medications and technologies, people who survive past 65 years old are living, on average, 19.4 more years. Longer lives, while appreciated in many ways, lead to an increase in overall healthcare cost as well as an increase in caregiver burden. This blog post aims to provide an introductory overview of how digital health technologies can be used to assist in improving the quality of life and care of the senior population.
Many devices and applications have come onto the market in recent years, intending to track and analyze a person’s health. These can include anything from watches that count steps, a mat that can be placed under a person’s mattress to detect sleep quality, or an app that syncs multiple healthcare charts together into one consolidated place. While many of these apps target the general population, they have the capability to help in communities where the industry has limited understanding, such people over 65.
Disease-Specific Biometric Tracking
Medical device wearables have opened a door for physicians and clinical researchers to better understand disease progression. Heart disease, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory disease are the three leading causes of death in people over the age of 65. Up until recently, disease tracking mechanisms were limited to doctor visits every few months along with patient reported surveys analyzed at the time of visit. With new wearable devices, physicians can now track and trend the effect these diseases are having on patients, predict longevity, and tailor treatment to the individual. These insights will help minimize the patient and caregiver burden of repeated trips to the doctor, allow physicians to see more patients in a single day, and lower overall cost of care.
Approximately 70% of the 50+ community are now digitally connected via smartphones. Smartphones can increase access to care without adding any additional required devices or technologies. Companies such as The Learning Corp and Pear Therapeutics are in the business of creating applications intended to actually treat serious diseases. Many of these apps are aimed at behavioral disorders. However, there are multiple apps on the market designed to improve cognitive function in dementia patients. Cognitive function apps, such as Game Show, are an incredibly important development as 1 in 3 seniors will die with some form of dementia. These apps focus on cognitive abilities such as memory, attention span, and problem-solving capabilities. The cognitive training built into these apps is often fun and completed through games and puzzles. The apps are also designed for easy integration into a daily routine.
Companies such as Apple and Fitbit have made it easier than ever to track activity, sleep, and sync together multiple aspects of a person’s daily life. Anything from medication reminders, to grocery lists, to location tracking for caregivers, all exist in a device that is as easy to use as a watch. Many of these apps intend to ease the memory loss linked to aging and assist seniors in their activities of daily living. There are even apps that help caregivers better understand what their family member or patient is going through with the goal of building empathy for the patients and the difficulties in their lives. The main goal of the consumer devices is to enable patients to take control over their own health while easing the burden of disease and aging on both the patient and the caregiver.
Cons to Technology Use
Many critics of the digital health technology boom call out the difficulty in learning how to use technology as the largest barrier to introducing new devices or apps to the elderly population. However, most companies, including MC10, keep the ease of use aspect as a priority throughout the development process. One way that usability is confirmed is through comprehensive testing in a population of 65 and older. Enabling seniors to use the device as is and provide feedback is one of the most important design steps in technology development. The goal of these tests is to make it clear that the benefits that accrue to the use of these innovations far outweighs the challenge of a learning curve, particularly when ease of use is a stated development goal.
While digital health technology is just getting started, numerous companies are investing in or developing devices and applications that will help our aging population maintain their quality of life and give clinicians a better understanding of what exactly happens to the human body when it reaches ages rarely seen before 1950.