Like most developed nations, the UK population is ageing. If you were born the same year as the World Wide Web, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, you could expect to reach 78.3 years for women, men 72.6 years. A child born today can add an extra five years to their life.
Although we are living longer, we are not, living healthier. The burden of disease has moved from infectious diseases to managing long term conditions like heart disease, cancer and dementia, placing a growing demand on the health and care system.Digital technology offers an opportunity to reimagine how we can support and empower an ageing population to lead healthy lives and provide better, and more cost effective, care. But there are concerns around increasing inequalities, social isolation and undermining the role of human relationships in good quality care.
Big data and artificial intelligence (AI)
Big data and artificial intelligence (AI) are making strides in early detection of chronic disease. Good progress has already been seen in eye disease , cancer , and even predicting Alzheimer’s years before diagnosis. By bringing together biological, clinical and lifestyle information, we are starting to see the beginnings of more personalised medicine that could revolutionise our health. Better use of data and digital tools, and an understanding of wider determinants of health, will give us the ability to better identify risks and take action to help people improve their health and well being – before they need care.
However, as we argue in Confronting Dr Robot, we need to ensure that the algorithms that drive decisions in health and social care are designed in ways that the public can understand, question and hold to account. Citizens need to be aware of what their personal data is being used for and be supported to give informed consent. Especially important when we consider the needs and rights of the 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia.
The rise of the smart home and robots
We are already seeing homes getting “smarter” through innovations such as smart heating but there is huge potential for connected technologies to support an ageing population.
Companies like Canary Care and Birdie are providing discreet home monitoring helping 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 when someone’s health is deteriorating, allowing them to intervene earlier. Robotics can provide physical, social, and cognitive assistance and we are going to see their use spread over the next 10 years, especially when it’s predicted that they may save up to £6 billion through automating some tasks. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight for example are exploring the role of collaborative robots , ‘cobots’, in providing physical support to paid and family carers.
In a difficult financial climate, focusing on what really matters to people as they age is fundamental if technological gains are going to deliver genuine improvements to people’s lives, as well as sustainability to the health and care system. It’s essential that we co-produce solutions with older people themselves, their families and frontline care workers, with Doteveryone’s Better Care Systems project being a great example of this. Social innovations have a complementary role to play too. Nesta and the Big Lottery Fund’s Accelerating Ideas programme supports evidence-based approaches to grow, from peer support groups to creative ways of fostering friendships across generations, like The Cares Family and GoodGym .
Technology has the potential to successfully address our social and ageing needs, but we need to maintain a focus on human care, using our human values to drive our technological needs, and measuring impact by what is important to people and their experiences of older age.