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In this article Sinead Mac Manus, Senior Programme Manager at Nesta’s Health Lab, takes a look at technological developments to assist an ageing population.

Like most developed nations, the UK population is ageing. The percentage of those aged over 65 increased from 14.1 per cent in 1975 to 17.8 per cent in 2015 and is projected to jump to nearly a quarter of the population by 2045. If you were born the same year as the World Wide Web (1989), a woman could expect to reach 78.3 years of age, and a man 72.6 years. A child born today, 30 years later, can add an extra five years to that prediction. 

This improvement in life expectancy is due to better health care, improved sanitation and medical advances in treating diseases. But although we are living longer, we are not living healthier. The burden of disease in the UK has moved from tackling infectious diseases to managing long-term conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. These diseases are placing a growing burden on the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) with over 50 per cent of doctor’s appointments and 70 per cent of in-patient bed days in hospital due to long-term conditions. Social care services are also at breaking point.

Highlighted as one of the Grand Challenges in the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, the government is investing over £300 million in creating new care technologies and services harnessing the power of technology to meet the needs of our ageing society. Digital technology offers a golden opportunity to reimagine how we can support and empower an ageing population to lead fulfilling and healthy lives.

Big data and artificial intelligence (AI)

Big data – huge data sets that can be analysed to identify patterns and trends –and artificial intelligence (AI) are heralding a new era of personalised medicine, where treatments are customised for individual patients, that will revolutionise how we manage peoples’ health. By bringing together biological, clinical and lifestyle information, we can paint a unique picture of each patient and target therapies to achieve the best outcomes in the prevention or management of a patient’s disease.

AI is making strides in the early detection of disease that in the future could significantly reduce the burden of chronic disease and allow people to live healthier lives for longer. Good progress has already been seen in eye disease, cancer, and even predicting Alzheimer’s years before diagnosis. 

As computing power increases and algorithms become more sophisticated, predictive prevention has the potential to transform public health and prevent people from developing conditions. Better use of public data combined with digital tools and an understanding of wider determinants of health will give us the ability to better identify risks and help the people most in need, before they become patients.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of AI in healthcare will be heavily dependent on access to large amounts of patient healthcare data, and we have a responsibility to ensure that the technologies are designed to benefit the diverse population in the UK.

The rise of the smart home

The Internet of Things (IoT) is made up of devices – from simple sensors in a home to smartphones and wearables – all connected together via the internet. We are already seeing homes getting 'smarter' through innovations such as smart heating and voice-activated smart hubs, but there is huge potential for connected technologies to support an ageing population.

Companies like Canary Care are already providing discreet home monitoring, allowing older people to remain independent longer. Wearable devices like those from Scottish startup Snap40 monitor continuous vital signs at home and can alert healthcare professionals to someone deteriorating so they can intervene earlier. Connected, ‘cognitive homes’, wearables and smartphones are also enabling older people to manage their long-term conditions more effectively, and allow health and human services to be delivered remotely. 

As the baby boomer generation (those born between 1946 – 1964) ages, it will demand better designed and more sophisticated technology, and will increasingly refuse to settle for unattractive products and services. They gradually want more ‘cool tech’ and, perhaps most importantly of all, they want suppliers to focus on them as customers, not as patients, end users, or care clients. In the future, we predict that smarter, connected ‘intelligent’ homes will be the norm and will be able to meet our needs throughout our lifespans, including when we need extra assistance. 

Reducing social isolation

Research shows that up to 18 per cent of UK adults feel lonely often or always, and older people are more at risk of social isolation than the general population. Loneliness can have as great an impact on someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Evidence suggests that supporting older people to participate fully in social life will help them to remain active and healthy for longer into later life, as well as helping people to recover when they do fall ill. Digital technologies can act as a broker for social experiences that are both stimulating and improve wellbeing.

Nesta has been backing pioneering projects in this space for a number of years, including technological innovations like KOMP (winner of the Smart Ageing Prize) and GoodGym – a technology-enabled platform that connects runners with isolated older people via social visits and one-off tasks they can't do on their own. In the future, we predict a growing market and appetite for internet-enabled technologies that facilitate real-world interactions and reduce social isolation.

Technology has the potential to successfully address our social and ageing needs, but we need to remember to maintain a focus on human care, using our human values to drive our technological needs, and measuring our impact by societal success. 

Nesta is a global innovation foundation. It backs new ideas to tackle the big challenges of our time, through its knowledge, networks, funding and skills. Nesta works in partnership with others, including governments, businesses and charities. It is a UK charity that works all over the world, supported by a financial endowment. 

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