Digital health for healthy ageing- How can we make it work?

May 3, 2022

As the population grows each day, the elderly population grows along with it. The number of people aged 65 and over in the U.K. increased 23% between 2009 and 2019, and is projected to grow more as time goes on. While lifetime expectancy expands, the ideas of working toward maximising life expectancy and ensuring that as much life as possible is spent disease free also become more popular. From this, the term healthy ageing was born.

Healthy ageing is the process of developing and maintaining lifestyle habits that enable wellbeing in older age. It’s about creating suitable environments and ideas to empower people to enact healthy change in their life.

The introduction of digital health services brought new life to the health field, expanding ways for older adults to receive help and support for their physical and mental health. Technology has led to more personalised interventions for the general population, making healthy ageing goals more accessible to everyone.

Challenges of digital interventions

  • Usability— most older adults are not comfortable with technology and require an easy-to-use interface in order to follow a digital intervention
  • Lack of confidence— without the encouragement of another person, most users have to rely on themselves for results
  • Economic status— internet access is a must, which is already a barrier for deprived sectors of the population
  • User security— some individuals reported fear of online security as a reason for not trusting digital health services

The benefits of digital health

  • Quicker and easier access to healthcare— reduces the burden on healthcare services
  • Prevents avoidable conditions— helps people self-manage their health through tracking and monitoring symptoms
  • Financially responsible— the cost of these services is generally less than in-person treatment, which can reduce health inequalities
  • Allows the user to stay at home— which increases accessibility
  • Encourages long-term habit change— through reminders and nudges, the user can learn to change their life in simple ways
  • Personalised experience— most digital health services have a screening process to make the service customised for the user
  • Sustainable healthcare— the aim of these services is to promote sustainable lifestyle changes through self-management
  • Promotes self-reliance—  boosts confidence and allows the user to independently work toward their health goals with digital support

Three main insights from studies on digital services for older adults

Design for accessibility

A research on digital health technologies reported that one of the challenges study participants with visual impairments expressed was having difficulties with the usability of the interface. Participants reported that the technology was not designed for the senior population. As a solution to this, digital-based interventions should make their interface easy to use and enlarge the text to improve accessibility. This study on digital health interventions also reported older adults are likely to appreciate and accept the technologies designed for their age group, especially when designed in a people-centred way. This highlights the need that before launching a service, digital health companies should do enough user research to make sure their product is suitable for an older population.

Personalisation is key

Tailoring recommendations to each user’s circumstance and experience. The personalisation element can come into place not only based on current health and goals, but also on the timing and content of motivational messages as reported by the preventIT project. This study also suggested the use of wearable technology and/or digital visualisation of users’ progress to increase long-term motivation and engagement.

Focus on community

A study on internet use and adoption of digital health tools for older adults in China revealed that the use of such tools can help maintain social connection and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. This study reported that a main aspect of quality of life, namely social support, is associated with internet use. These findings suggest that the use of technology can be an important enabler of social participation and engagement, which is a big challenge that most older adults face.

Some concluding thoughts

Evidence suggests that there is potential in using technology to encourage behaviour change in older adults. However, it’s important that these services use a people-centric design to make sure they are tailored to meet the needs of the end users. Other elements to consider are accessibility, personalisation and social interaction.

Digital health interventions hold the promise to bridge the availability gap that leaves many people without personalised health and wellbeing support. It is particularly relevant to provide these services to older adults who are at risk of developing preventable health conditions so they can begin their healthy ageing journey.

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