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Healthcare must evolve to best serve the ageing population


Over recent years, research into the causes and effects of ageing has intensified. This is largely driven by an ageing population and the consequent acute need to keep people fit and healthy as they get older. Fail to do so, and we risk placing even greater strain on already staggering healthcare systems.
  • Author Name: Dan Boot
Editor: Abbie Boyd Last Updated: 22-Nov-2019

Over recent years, research into the causes and effects of ageing has intensified. This is largely driven by an ageing population and the consequent acute need to keep people fit and healthy as they get older. Fail to do so, and we risk placing even greater strain on already staggering healthcare systems.

Recent advancements in the fields of technology and personalised nutrition are laying the foundations to enable better self-care among older adults. Transforming these quickly into effective and credible consumer healthcare solutions is now a priority for the industry, but this will demand collaboration.

The vital importance of diet

Many believe that frailty is a natural consequence of old age, but this is a misconception. Although a loss of muscle mass and bone density is to be expected, research indicates that this is often accelerated among older adults by malnutrition, leaving older consumers at even greater risk of falls and less able to conduct their daily lives freely.[i]

Malnutrition can occur even in adults who are a reasonable weight, as the natural decrease in muscle mass causes a fall in basal metabolic rate. This in turn reduces the energy requirement of older adults, making the consumption of high quality food, vital. Maintaining the same diet as a younger person can cause an increase in body fat but may leave older individuals lacking in key nutrients. [ii]

Older consumers who do not adapt their behaviour to their changing dietary needs will place themselves at greater risk from the dangerous consequences of malnutrition, such as weaker immunity, poorer gastrointestinal function and lower cardio-respiratory function.

In recent years the medical community has responded to this issue, and there are now several charities and organisations working towards building a better understanding of the causes and effects of malnutrition in older consumers. The INCLuSilver project, for example, supports the generation and validation of innovative ideas in the field of personalised nutrition for older consumers – something that could have an incredibly positive impact on their quality of life.

Thanks to rapid advancements in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), which have enabled the analysis of large-scale clinical data, we’re moving ever closer to a future where true personalised nutrition is possible.[iii] Reaching this, however, will depend on diverse actors, including technologists, data-scientists and clinicians working together to transform data insights into practical guidance and credible solutions.

Encouraging activity with technology

Increasingly sedentary lifestyles are permeating every generation and among older consumers, the impact of this is amplified. Recent research has linked slower walking speed in old age to higher risk of dementia and decline, suggesting that staying physically fit and active is critical to maintaining good general health.[iv]

A number of organisations are now exploring the potential of digital technologies to increase activity amongst older consumers. The recently completed PreventIT project, for example, developed and tested two lifestyle-integrated exercise intervention programmes to prevent functional decline in adults aged 61-70 years: one paper-based and instructor-led, and one app-based. The results indicated that participants managed to change their daily routines towards increased activity and were positive about the proof-of-concept technologies integrated in the app-based intervention.

Such research works towards undoing the common misconception that older people are not tech savvy and instead supports the development of digital self-care solutions targeted at older consumers. The market is already responding to this, with several wearable devices specifically designed for older adults. VitalTech’s Vitalband, for example, monitors step count and heart rate – but also falls, sending out an alert to family members or emergency respondents if needed. In addition, wearables marketed at a broader consumer base are also including this functionality. On detection of a hard fall the Apple Watch will sound an alarm or display an alert, giving its user the option to contact emergency services immediately.

Supporting mind and body

Technology is also helping to fight isolation and loneliness, which elderly people are particularly susceptible to. It is estimated that by 2025, 2 million people over 50 in the UK will suffer from loneliness,[v]a condition which can have a dramatic impact on mental health.

With loneliness an increasingly pressing concern, the medical community is looking at digital therapeutics as a possible solution. Defined as evidence-based therapeutic interventions driven by high quality software programs to prevent, manage, or treat a medical disorder or disease[vi], these apps provide the digital delivery of therapy based on a consumer’s characteristics without the direct input of a human physician.

The NHS has recently released Every Mind Matters, an app that sets out to help people manage their mental health and wellbeing through assessing questionnaire responses and providing tips on improving their health. While such apps may not be targeted specifically at the older generation or replace the need for human contact, they could be instrumental in helping older consumers fend off the effects of loneliness and maintain good mental health.

Older consumers also need to take care of their mind on a physiological level. Cognitive change is a normal process of ageing, so that some abilities, including memory, conceptual reasoning and processing speed, can decline over time. Maintaining these abilities is now becoming a focus for the healthcare industry. We’re seeing several innovative solutions enter the market, including Neuriva, which marries a science-backed dietary supplement with a complementary digital training programme developed to support brain health.

Such hybrid solutions are indicative of the direction of travel for the consumer healthcare sector, with market leaders embracing digital technologies and deploying these alongside more traditional ingredients to deliver better outcomes for consumers.

Ensuring effectiveness and credibility

The ageing industry is set to triple in size over the next three years to approximately $30 billion. With this fast-expanding market creating significant opportunity for financial gain, it is inevitable that entrepreneurs will be vying to enter it quickly and gain the upper hand. Nevertheless, developing credible, effective solutions must remain the primary objective.

As the consumer healthcare landscape evolves and digital technologies play an increasing role in self-care, collaboration will be critical. Complex solutions will need the input of expert researchers, technologists and clinicians, amongst others, to ensure clinical excellence and encourage confidence in consumers.

Partnering with a larger organisation, with evidenced consumer focus and clinical expertise, is one way to ensure necessary rigour is bought to the R&D process and any solution really does improve the health and happiness of users.