Technology Aims to Cure the Problems of Old Age, but Where’s the Evidence?


Like me, you may have an aging family member who lives at home alone. My dad is in his 70s and has lived at home alone for 10 years. Most of the time I don’t even think of him as “aging,” as he is fully capable of taking care of himself, but I have noticed that our phone conversations increasingly focus on his doctor’s appointments, challenging household chores and tasks and related various pains and gripes. Recently, our conversations have taken a different turn: my notoriously technology-averse dad has started to mention new technologies that are “neat,” and has indicated he may be interested in exploring how they can make life easier as he ages.

Technology and Older Adults, a Growing Market

It’s not surprising that my dad and other older adults are taking note of new technologies marketed towards them, as health technology, generally, is receiving a lot of investment and attention. In the first six months of 2018, more than $3 billion were invested in digital health products, and market reports indicate that funding is not slowing down. We have seen the focus on technology for older adults expand this past year with notable companies shifting their market focus to this population and their caregivers.

One example is Best Buy’s recent acquisition of GreatCall for $800 million. GreatCall provides mobile smart and flip phones that are intended to be easier for seniors to use and navigate, as well as wearables (e.g., watches) that can act as medical alert devices and passive remote monitoring systems to capture changes that might indicate a need for medical follow-up. Apple Watch also recently announced two new features that expand their market to older adults, including a fall detection sensor that can call for help if needed. 

Technology Landscape for Older Adults

The landscape of technology aimed at older adults as they age well spans from mHealth (i.e., mobile health) devices or phone applications to other digital devices. These products are mostly geared toward the day-to-day management of a chronic condition such as diabetes, heart failure, hypertension and pain management. They also can help adults live longer in their homes by reducing the need for personal care assistance or the need to move to a supervised health care setting, like an assisted living facility or nursing home. Examples of other digital devices to support aging in place are voice assistants like Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, smart home products like passive remote health monitoring products and even robotic pets intended to reduce feelings of isolation.

What research exists?

As the daughter of an aging parent, I am interested in the current technology boom for older adults, and as a researcher who studies long-term care I presumed I knew where to find scientific evidence for improved health outcomes or the benefits of various technologies. I also assumed I could help my father navigate the expansive technology choices that exist. However, while I was able to find quite a bit of information about the many technology choices targeted to older adults, I also found that many studies of new technology are not focused on older adults (50+). It can also be difficult to find data (beyond pilot data) that explores the potential benefits of these technologies. While there is some literature around acceptance, attitudes, and use of technology, there is very little that explores the relationship between use of these technologies and improved health outcomes.

How can we ensure there is evidence-based research and dissemination for these products?

The market for new digital products and applications aimed at older adults and their caregivers continues to grow as the number of older adults increases globally. As AARP has reported, both older adults and their caregivers are interested in new technologies to support aging in place. And, as these numbers grow and generations who grew up with technology enter the aging market, its use by both groups is likely to increase.

Peer-reviewed articles about older adults and digital technology often call for more research on whether these technologies improve health outcomes. What consumers need is more timely, rigorous and nationally representative research, as in funded large-scale evaluations of specific technologies and how they impact health outcomes for older adults. Quick and accessible dissemination of results, so that older adults or caregivers can understand the reported information, is also key to ensuring users are informed in their technology selections.

The next time my dad asks me about a new technology product, I’d prefer—and I am sure others would too—a simple, direct way to find evidence for how these products improve health outcomes for older adults; something beyond just market research and consumer reviews.