May 25,2016

Publish By:Peter Vermeiren

Activity app for an ageing population

Bloggers:

Jorunn L. Helbostad and Beatrix Vereijken
Professors at the Department of Neuroscience, NTNU Norway,
and coordinators of the EU-project PreventIT

Jorunn        Beatrix

Prof. Jorunn Helbostad                Prof. Beatrix Vereijken

Almost daily, new mobile technology becomes available to help us get or remain in shape, such as fitness apps, heart rate monitors, and fitness trackers. Most of this technology is aimed at young adults and is developed to help them achieve specific training goals. Can we use this new mobile technology to create solutions that can help older adults to become more active in their everyday life?

Picture1
Can mobile technology help older adults to become more active?
We investigate this in the PreventIT project.
Picture credit: Thor Nielsen/NTNU

Most European countries face a major change in the composition of the population, with a steadily increasing number and proportion of older adults. As a result, it is both a national and an international goal to facilitate an active late adulthood, with good health and quality of life, that allows older adults to be more self-reliant in everyday life for as long as possible.

We coordinate a European research project, PreventIT, that uses smartphones and smart watches to collect data about physical function and social behaviour in newly retired seniors. These data will allow us to detect very early signs of increased risk for functional decline in later life, and tailor everyday activities for the individual person, in order to achieve the goal of active and healthy ageing.

TOMORROW’S OLDER ADULTS

People in their seventies today have much better health and function than those 20 years ago. We live longer and, by 2060, life expectancy will be close to 90 years for women and over 85 years for men in many European countries.

At the same time, the proportion of people above 70 years of age will almost double from just over 10% today to just below 20% in 2060. The largest increase will be in the oldest age groups, and we expect that 10% of the European population will be 80 years or older in 2060. Unfortunately, not all the additional years we can look forward to will be years spent in good health. On the contrary, we need to count on having to live an increased number of years with disease and reduced functional ability.

Because of increased life expectancy and fewer births, the number of employees per retired person will go down from 5-6 employees today to about 2 for every retired person in 20150. In most European countries, the increase in number of older adults will be most noticeable from about 2020. That means that the time is now to plan future services for older adults!

OLDER ADULTS IN THE RISK ZONE

With the coming demographic changes, it is more important than ever that national and international authorities aim at facilitating active ageing, in which the older adults themselves are empowered to take care of their own health and function as much as possible for as long as possible.

A good late adulthood should also contribute to good life quality and give older adults the opportunity to live independent lives for longer. Health promotion and disease prevention will therefore be more important than ever. It is crucial to catch people at risk for functional decline at a very early stage, before functional disability becomes a reality.

To order to achieve this, we need better knowledge of the earliest signs of functional decline and development of countermeasures that can reverse the loss or maintain current functional levels for longer.

WELFARE TECHNOLOGY AS SOLUTION

Welfare technology is one of the solutions that should help ensure that older adults can live a good and independent life for as long as possible. Welfare technology is defined as technological assistance that contributes to improved safety, security, social participation, mobility, and physical and cultural activity, and strengthens the ability of individuals to fend for themselves in everyday life despite illness and social, mental, or physical disabilities.

Mobile health technology is used to describe welfare technology solutions that are based on the use of wearable technology, such as smart phones or smart watches, which in principle are modern computers. Many people use such technology already for training and health purposes, and there is a steadily increasing number of smart products that can register type, intensity, and localization of activities throughout the day, as well as sleep patterns and quality during the night.

In order for these systems to be suitable for older adults, it is necessary to develop systems specifically designed for older adults, taking account of their needs, barriers, and motivations. Moreover, to be useful for health purposes, systems must be based on research, which is rarely the case today.

ACTIVITY IN DAILY LIFE CAN BE THE BEST TRAINING

Our society moves steadily in the direction of less activity and more sedentary behaviour. Tasks that used to be performed manually by people are more and more automatized and performed by machines. The technology that surrounds us makes us move less and less. While there is a tendency for more people to take up structured exercise, everyday activity levels go down. Most adult Europeans spend about 9 hours of their waking time sitting down.

Moreover, older adults are more inactive than younger adults. But there is good evidence that exercise and an active daily life improve health and function in all age groups, including the oldest adults.

To have an effect over time, people need to change their behaviour towards a more active lifestyle. There are numerous studies that have shown that training effects diminish shortly after a training period, probably because structured exercise is difficult to maintain and often does not lead to a lasting change in activity levels and patterns in daily life. It seems therefore plausible that exercise that is integrated in daily life more easily leads to a change in behaviour that can last over time.

There is an existing training programme for older adults where exercises are integrated in daily life, the LiFE program, which has shown good training effects over time on strength and balance and reduced falls in older adults. This programme entices the user to make daily life a little more complex by doing many activities during the day in a slightly more difficult or challenging way. Examples are to balance on one leg while brushing your teeth, to bend knees and hips rather than the back and hips when emptying the dishwasher, or to get off the bus a stop earlier and walk the last part home. This is a different kind of training concept that should be tested at a larger scale, as an alternative to traditional forms of exercising, when the goal is to bring about a change in lifestyle.

THE PreventIT STUDY

PreventIT is a 3-year project financed by the EU HORIZON 2020 programme. We will build further on the LiFE training concept and adapt this to older adults who are in the transition of becoming retired. We will develop mobile phone applications that will enable older adults to map their own functional level in different domains, and give personalized advice on activities in daily life.

The necessary technology and training programme will be developed during 2016 and tested in a feasibility study in 2017. The last year of the project will be used to further develop the technology so that it can be used by younger older adults, so that they can influence their own health and function. During the life of the project, different parts of the intervention and technologies will be tested out in Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway.

PreventIT is also on LinkedIn (preventit), Twitter (@PreventitEU), and Facebook (Preventit.eu).