Opinion#healthtech
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7 April 2021
Unsplash © Michael Dziedzic

AgeTech: How technology could drastically benefit an ageing society

Humans aren’t comfortable with the idea of ageing. Trying to slow down the natural body clock has been our obsession for centuries.

Through medical procedures, supplements, diets and exercises, we do whatever we can to stay youthful, or at least young-looking. Science fiction has periodically lampooned this human desire — like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — where humans are kept ageless through science and medicine until their bodies can no longer withstand it, or in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where faces are stretched paper thin to avoid wrinkles.

Yet, like it or not, we’re getting older. Over the past half century, average life expectancy in the UK has gone up ten years, now just over 81 years. By 2050, one in four people in Europe will be over 65, while it’s now estimated that one in three babies born today will live to see their 100th birthday.

The implication of an ageing society carries with it significant challenges, such as redressing the concept of retirement, addressing the burden on welfare systems, and preparing for the risk of both neurological diseases and, in a post-COVID world, infectious ones.

As with many challenges we’ve faced in recent decades, technology could again provide the solution to many of those problems. The age technology — or ‘AgeTech’ — space is an exciting and fertile arena for entrepreneurs looking to address these longevity economy problems.

The 100-year life

Organisational theorist Lynda Gratton and fellow London Business School professor Andrew Scott wrote about ‘The 100-Year Life’ in 2016.

Gratton and Scott explain how, contrary to previous generations, those living and born today can reasonably expect to live into their hundreds — the outset of what they, and many others, call the ‘longevity economy’. But our current system and societal practices aren’t equipped to deal with this new society-wide lease of life.

Implications range from the interesting to the alarming. Retirement, pensions and social care all need serious redefinition and redesign when the over-60s represent a significant proportion of the population: Gratton redubs it ‘re-creation’, referring to a move towards lifelong learning and reeducation.

Neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s have boomed as populations have got older, with the total number affected in the UK set to double by 2040 to 1.6 million according to the Alzheimer’s Society. Currently, one in six people over the age of 80 suffer from dementia.

COVID-19 has exposed additional risks associated with ageing populations, with countries with older populations among the worst hit. Older individuals have been forced to be more independent, or, as the flipside of the same coin, more isolated.

The challenges, it would seem, are two-fold. Firstly, a need for society to better support a growing number of elderly people; secondly, a demand and desire from old people to live more independently.

The AgeTech opportunity

What’s clear is that 2021 presents an important opportunity for innovations in AgeTech. On the one hand, over 65s are the fastest growing demographic in the world, growing at a rate of 2.5% compared to 0.7% for other populations.

At the same time, we are seeing a far greater uptake of technology from older generations, propelled in particular by the pandemic and technology’s ability to keep people connected and informed.

“We know that loneliness and isolation is an on-going issue for older people, and undoubtedly technology has a role to play here,” said Simon Hewitt-Avison, director of services at charity Independent Age. He quotes a survey that found that 11% of respondents told us they had learnt how to use digital technology for the first time during the pandemic.

4Gen Ventures — referring to the ‘four generation’ world we now live in — is a venture capital fund specifically investing in agetech ventures. Their website lays out the facts bluntly: “by 2025 the 2.1 billion over-50s will represent more than 25% of the global population, 40% of discretionary income, and 75% of global wealth.”

In an interview with Forbes, 4Gen co-founder Dominic Endicott compares the untapped opportunity of AgeTech with the discovery of cheap fossil fuels in the 19th and 20th centuries, albeit a discovery that will not destroy society and the environment but could instead strengthen them.

Opportunities for AgeTech entrepreneurs

Independence is a driving factor behind AgeTech. There is a huge opportunity for technologies which facilitate more independent lifestyles of the elderly, making them less reliant on younger generations for support and care.

Adapting existing technology for older generations is key to bridging this gap and helping offer solutions that are tailored to the right users. This in turn will also encourage mainstream tech companies to offer specific services to the elderly.

Fintech has benefited greatly from agetech innovations. TrueLink, for instance, is a prepaid Visa card which can help elderly people use online transactions without the risks of online fraud. PensionBee, meanwhile, allows customers to combine different pensions through one coherent app.

Older generations also stand to benefit greatly from digitised remote care provision, particularly given the availability of telehealth, which has also seen a rapid uptake post-COVID.

Birdie tackles several of the problems associated with accessing care. Birdie helps users go ‘paperless’ through digitising admin and reporting that complicate living, as well as providing clear communication between users and care providers. Birdie raised €7M in a Series A funding round in 2018, led by insurer AXA.

Sense.ly goes a step further, providing a ‘virtual nurse’ to help provide instant support and care. In the UK, Sense.ly partnered with the NHS during the pandemic to create ‘Ask NHS’, which provides advice and support for non-life threatening emergencies.

Remote support also extends to connecting you to loved ones, who may ordinarily take on the day-to-day support for elderly relatives. Howz highlights deviations from the norm around energy usage — if electricity usage is significantly down one day, it may flag up certain problems.

For those suffering from or at risk of neurological diseases like dementia, there’s a range of products. LookBack is a digital therapy platform using virtual reality to help those with dementia. Memrica is a platform allowing users suffering from dementia and memory loss to make notes about everyday details, from people’s names to household chores.

Designing products for older generations has one important caution above it. Dominic Endicott strongly advises that products aren’t specifically marketed at old people: “it is necessary to design universal or ageless products and services that are appealing to all people but that will likely skew older.”

Certain wearable technology startups, for instance, saw initial resistance when they offered age-specific products; yet through general technologies like the Apple Watch, products have seen far more success.

As Brave New World’s citizens found, science and medicine can only stave off old age for so long. Conversely, AgeTech hopes not to put off or paper over old age, but rather to help society embrace it and engage with the challenges it poses. Time will tell if it can help us live out the 100-year life.