Can Health-Monitoring Technology Help You Live Longer?
April 16, 2015 | Enjoying Retirement
From wearable devices that track physical activity to blood tests that check for biomarkers, consumers today have easy access to more information about their health than ever before, thanks to health-monitoring technology.
But can this technology help people to defy aging and live longer lives?
“Technology that supports healthy lifestyles can improve the quality of aging. But not yet proven that it expands your life,” said Ursula M. Staudinger, a lifespan psychologist and internationally acknowledged aging researcher who is director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center in New York.
Renowned aging and longevity expert Dr. Walter M. Bortz II believes health-monitoring technology may help some individuals to live healthier and longer lives—but only if they use the data to adopt lifestyle habits that foster well-being.
“Wearing 10 monitors on your body isn’t going to do a thing unless you change your behavior,” said Bortz, a clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine who teaches a course on the science of longevity.
“Technology can help change behavior,” he said. “But it’s not a fail-safe.”
Health-monitoring technology represents a multi-billion dollar industry with products ranging from activity wristbands such as Fitbit to wearable blood glucose monitoring devices that send data to smartphones. Other advances include services such as Inside Tracker’s Inner Age, which checks a blood sample for five biomarkers to determine if your body matches your chronological age and recommends foods to improve your score.
Staudinger views the growing interest in health-monitoring technology as a good phenomenon that can motivate those seeking healthier lives. “Behavioral research has shown that feedback is very helpful in keeping people on track with their goals,” she said.
But many people won’t change their habits unless they have an incentive, including lower health insurance costs because they’re healthy, said Bortz.
“I’m in favor of rewarding good behavior,” said Bortz, an 85-year-old marathon runner who believes he should pay less for health insurance than a physically unfit 40-year-old.
Bortz is working to develop a composite fitness profile for potential use by the health insurance industry. “We need to show how the data translates to lower health care costs,” he said.
Lifespan Versus Life Expectancy
Many people use the terms “maximal lifespan” and “average life expectancy” interchangeably, although they describe to two different things, noted Staudinger. Maximal lifespan refers to the number of years a person can expect to live based on the biology of aging and mortality records. Life expectancy refers to the average number of years a person is expected to live. For example, children born in the United States in 2012 can expect to live an average of 79 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I believe 100 healthy years is our biological potential. That’s my goal,” said Bortz, who is the author of The Roadmap to 100 and many other books and articles on healthy aging.
Chronological age and genetic composition typically play a small role in determining how long a person will live, according to longevity experts. People with the same chronological age may have very different cognitive and biological (which refers to the body’s physical condition) ages.
“A top performer in cognitive ability at age 70 can be above the average level of a 30-year-old. That is how drastic the differences are,” said Staudinger.
Focus on Living Better
Staudinger would like to “see the conversation shift to living better, not living longer. We have expanded our lives by three decades (to age 80) in the last 100 years. Now it’s time to help people to fully enjoy those longer lives. Most of us can’t do that yet.”
Health-monitoring technology can help reduce the “sick years that are built into these longer lives, which would be major in terms of costs to society and the quality of life of individuals and their families, who are most often involved in the caretaking,” she said.
“Health does not depend on genes. It depends on behavior,” added Bortz, who estimates that genes are only 15 percent responsible for how we live and how we age.
Looking ahead, longevity experts worry about data reliability and privacy concerns as more people adopt health-monitoring technology. For instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate many consumer devices, including fitness trackers. Who has access to the data collected by these devices raises questions about privacy. Another concern is the availability of quality software and apps that “make sense of the data for the lay person who is not a medical doctor or a behavioral scientist,” said Staudinger.
Despite the industry challenges, experts expect health-monitoring technology will play a larger role in people’s lives in the future. Bortz foresees the day when folks have a step counter embedded into their shoulder to continuously track their activity. To some, the scenario sounds like science fiction—but not to Bortz.
“It’s not so far off,” he said. “It’s coming.”