mHealth holds great promise for graying world

We all want access to quality healthcare, especially as we enter our senior years. However, a recent global study released by the United Nations showed that the world is aging so rapidly that most countries are unprepared to support their growing numbers of elderly people. In less than 10 years, according to the report, the number of people aged 60 years or over in the world will reach one billion and double to two billion by 2050, accounting for 22 percent of the global population. 

"In order to realize their right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, older persons must have access to age-friendly and affordable health-care information and services that meet their needs," states the UN report. "This includes preventive, curative and long-term care… Policies are needed to promote healthy lifestyles, assistive technology, medical research and rehabilitative care."

Population age is increasing fastest in developing countries, even in places where there is also a large population of young people. By mid century, for the first time in history, people over the age of 60 will outnumber children under the age of 15, with nearly four in five people aged 60 or over living in the developing world. 

On Oct. 1, to coincide with the UN's International Day of Older Persons, the mHealth Alliance and Pfizer launched a call to action for researchers, implementers, health workers, donors, governments and the private sector to "prioritize mHealth as a powerful tool for aging populations in developing countries" and to leverage mobile technology to "empower older people to take a more proactive role in their own care." The two organizations surveyed experts in mobile technology, global health and geriatric medicine to come up with three key areas related to aging where mobile technology can have a significant impact: 

  • Prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases
  • Prevention and treatment of mental disease and illness
  • Support and training for caregivers of the elderly

"The universal use of mobile devices is one of the greatest social changes of our lifetimes," said Freda Lewis-Hall, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer., in a written statement. "Within the next year, the number of mobile phones in use will reach 7.3 billion--more than the number of people on our planet--with the fastest growth coming in low-to-middle-income regions. At the same time, we're confronting the daunting challenges of meeting the needs of an expanding elderly population. With these two trends converging, we have tremendous opportunities to tap mobile technology to help us all get old better."

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about how the United States is facing a crisis in how our healthcare system treats cancer, given that baby boomers are entering their "tumor-prone" years, and as a result the delivery of cancer care in this country is about to be tested in ways that it hasn't in the past. Well, the same holds true for other diseases that will statistically afflict an aging global population. 

There's no doubt that the so-called "silver tsunami" will significantly increase the global disease burden for other chronic diseases as well, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. This disease burden will also include declining cognitive acuity and mental health. For instance, the number of people with dementia worldwide is projected to nearly double every 20 years, from 35.6 million today to 65.7 million in 2030.

As the line in the song by the ageless rockers The Rolling Stones says: "What a drag it is getting old." Nevertheless, our graying world has the potential for healthier aging by embracing mHealth and employing mobile technology to aid the prevention and treatment of debilitating chronic diseases associated with age.- Greg (@Slabodkin)