Aging does not look like the life presented on stock photos with happy, smiley, older people using their smart badges. Aging is much more than fall detection, ECG monitoring, pill reminders, and medication tracking apps. Aging goes beyond 65+. Here is a brief guide to a new mindset in a healthcare ecosystem of constant demographic evolution.
The gift of aging
What’s more, aging is not a challenge or a problem, but a great achievement and a brand-new situation in the history of humankind that we are privileged to experience. About 100 years ago, we could call the group of people at the age of 25+“seniors.” At the beginning of 1900, life expectancy globally didn’t usually exceed 35-40 years. Today it has doubled. “Older people” are those over 65 years old, which – by the way – is far from the truth. If we take into consideration the characteristic aging symptoms, teenagers are already starting to get old when they lose the ability to hear sounds above 20 kHz, high-frequencies recognised by children. After reaching the age of 20, the aging process is gaining momentum. Cognitive decline begins, wrinkles appear, we start to lose body mass. After the age of 50-60, this process speeds up; other symptoms appear like menopause by women, aging diseases including among others atherosclerosis, hearing loss, cataract, etc.
So let’s go back in time again by 100 years. Life expectancy globally in 1919 was around 35 years old. If the economists and public health experts had known that in 100 years it would reach 70-80 years, they could call it at least apocalyptic. But the world has adapted to the new situation introducing pension systems, developing new medicines and innovations that extend the healthy years of life. Longevity is a big win in modern societies. According to the WHO, today, 125 million people are aged 80 years or older. By 2050, this number will rise to 434 million.
Inclusive, not a silver economy
The “silver economy” comes from the Japanese concept of the “silver market,” a business area of disruptive innovations serving the older demographic, a new market for “silver goods.” I must admit I have a big problem with the wording “silver economy,” which emphasizes the monetarization of the needs of older people. It communicates that the aging population is not more than just a new type of customers. Perceiving older people as “purchasing potential” due to some aging symptoms and problems is simply not fair.
However, there are many significant innovations designed for the needs of seniors who are burdened on average with a few chronic diseases. Also, digitalisation enters the area, on the one hand with a lot of promises, on the other hand – with uncertainty. Among all brand new telemedicine systems, smart watches, apps allowing us to track medication plans – these are essential – I miss innovations that understand what aging is, that go beyond standard products and services, targeting something other than diseases and limited mobility. For example, when I asked my parents what they could name the most significant innovation that improved their life in the last five years, in addition to modern medicines, they mentioned… Skype. This user-friendly tool allowed them to stay in touch with family and friends, to see relatives and talk to them no matter where they are. It’s time to direct our attention to real game-changing solutions which improve the quality of life – not only patient outcomes. Let’s stop thinking about seniors as people for whom the highest priority is health at all costs in a medical meaning. The challenge is to understand their different needs, so new products and services enhance happiness, not purchasing power. Additional years bring new possibilities, but they, of course, depend on the health in the living environment.
For seniors, but not with them
Just like fighting age-related diseases, we should also care about the elderly, understood as people with particular expectations, people for whom longevity might not always matter most, but also other factors or well-being in a broader meaning.
There is no typical “old person.” Some seniors with disabilities feel happier than a fully healthy 30-year-old healthy man. Some 75-year-old seniors are as fit as their 40-year-old sons and daughters. This is a big responsibility for companies and especially startups operating in the area of digital healthcare. We should avoid all the stereotypes and thinking about the aging population as we do about people who need special care.
Last but not least, digital solutions for the elderly should always be taken into consideration – to the extent possible – the existing inequalities in the population of 65+. A few years ago, Lucien Engelen, then a director or REshape Innovation Center, established a movement “Patients Included.” Since that time, patients are more present at digital health conferences, take part in the designing and development process of digital health solutions. Therefore it’s high time for a new shift. To get the elderly involved in discussions at digital health conferences. To get them engaged in medtech companies and startups, besides patients and medical professionals. I hope that soon a hashtag #elderlyincluded, or similar one, will become as visible as #shehealth or #patientsincluded.