Wearable technologies and their impact on optimal aging

The McMaster Health Forum, with support from the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative, recently hosted a public talk to examine the latest evidence on wearable technologies and the impact of these devices on health and healthcare.

Nora Young (host of CBC Radio’s Spark and author of The Virtual Self) and Anthony J. Levinson (Physician; Associate Professor; John Evans Chair in Educational Research; Director, Division of e-Learning Innovation, McMaster University) delivered a compelling talk.

Watch the video or read the summary below:

Click here for information on upcoming talks (and live-webcasts) on optimal aging issues.

What are wearables and who buys them?
Wearable technologies are devices that you wear, which gather data about you or your environment and have the ability to communicate that data over the internet.

Around 2% of Americans own a dedicated fitness tracker. Individuals who purchase a dedicated fitness tracker tend to be under 35 year of age, well off, educated and physically active – generally not the people who could benefit the most from them.

Many of us already essentially have wearables that we take around with us all the time – a smartphone.

“As much as we’re seeing a lot of activity in this, we’re also seeing that this is still a niche activity – an early adopter type of activity,” said Nora Young.

Do they work?
The use of wearable technologies is still fairly new, but the early evidence is not that convincing in terms of health benefits. Research by Amish Patel (University of Pennsylvania) shows that simply owning a fitness tracker doesn’t improve people’s fitness levels.

“It’s a good way to assess where you’re at, but the desire for behaviour change comes first. You can think of these fitness trackers or calorie counters as companions to your motivation, but not replacement for them,” said Nora Young.

Speaking about the evidence from the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal, Anthony Levinson agreed that “there’s not a lot of evidence right now that says that these devices are going to benefit health.”

However, “we’re still at the early stages of development of these tools, so we’re still learning about how to apply what is known about behaviour change to the design of the technologies,” added Nora Young.

Assistive devices for optimal aging
“There’s huge potential for using wearables as assistive devices,” said Nora Young.

The most obvious use for wearable technologies is in tracking fitness and movement, but wearables and apps can also help assist with memory (via location-based data), mood, and more.

Clinical use
“Having wearables on the right people at the right time could be quite clinically valuable,” said Anthony Levinson.

The use of wearable technologies - to track activity of patients while in hospital or between outpatient visits - could be quite valuable. These trackers would provide more accurate data to clinicians than the snapshots reports from periodic interactions. This data could be used to help evaluate recovery, help identify worsening depression, or in other clinical evaluations.

The potential for wearable technologies and optimal aging
Wearable technologies are gathering huge amounts of data about our behaviours, activities, movements, heart rates, and more.

“There’s tremendous potential in that data for real-world benefit to ourselves as individuals, but also ground-breaking potential benefit to the broader community – to us as a collective. And health is a big part of that picture,” said Nora Young.

If we start to bring together all of this data from disparate sources, wearables might be able to warn us about certain behaviours or predict health risks.

“The hope here is that just as we can use data and analytics to improve our own personal health, we can bring about greater insights for public health by amassing this kind of data amongst numbers of people,” said Nora Young.

Interoperability and challenges around data use and ownership

Unfortunately, the various wearable technologies are not currently bringing that data together in a way that’s useful for us.

“In general, these various tools operate separately – as separate companies, separate devices, separate apps – and they don’t necessarily make it possible for that data to talk to each other.”

To add to this, there are also challenges around data ownership as many of these businesses sell the collected data to third parties as part of their business model.

For the time being, wearable technologies are facilitators, but not necessarily drivers of health behaviour change.

For more information about healthy aging that you can trust, visit the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal.