The ageing population is growing fast around the world due to longer life expectancy and lower birth rates. Whilst people are living longer, they are also expecting to live a high quality of life in their old age. This includes being able to live independently and enjoying activities such as walking in the park, visiting friends and even travelling around the world. These may sound easy for young people but could be very challenging for the elderly with ageing-associated diseases such as osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a disease that causes the loss of bone strength, increasing the chance of bones breaking. When a bone breaks – this is our infamous friend, the fracture, it can have devastating effects; sufferers have had to stay in bed for several months due to excruciating pain. Sounds rather terrible, right? Unfortunately, it is estimated that around half of women and one in five men over the age of 50 experience fractures due to osteoporosis. In the UK alone there are approximately 3 million people with osteoporosis and over 250,000 fractures every year as a result. There is also a huge economic burden on the NHS associated with fractures, to the tune of £1.7billion a year.
Now, in the typical fashion of a true procrastinator, some people think that osteoporosis is a disease that should be dealt with by doctors when people get older and actually fracture their bones, however it is much better to prevent it during youth and middle age by having the appropriate level of physical activity and nutrition. This is the idea of “healthy ageing”: to develop and maintain the human body’s function during the ageing process in order to enable a high quality of health in older age.
The foremost benefit of healthy ageing is that it allows people to take control of their health during their ageing process – but, as per usual, anything worth having doesn’t come easy. It is surprisingly difficult for someone to know how much and what kind of physical activity is needed in order to prevent potential fractures in the future. But then, in comes technology. The digital revolution has provided us with the unprecedented capacity to capture, store, share and analyse enormous amounts of data. With this powerful technology, we can obtain so much more information about the human body than we could before. The marriage between digital technology and healthcare has been so successful that a new discipline, digital health, has been born.
Our lab is currently using digital technology to develop a system that can predict a person’s risk of suffering a fracture in the future (e.g. in the next 10 years) based on their current level of physical activity. The system comprises of a very small motion sensor that is capable of capturing a large amount of human movement data during a certain period (usually a day, a week, or even a month), and a specially designed algorithm that can predict the risk of fracture based on the captured movement data. This algorithm is very reliable as it is based on the analysis of data that has already been collected from more than 5,000 people including their daily activity, nutrition, muscle and bone health, and whether they had any previous fractures. We are hoping that this system can be used to help people monitor their physical activity and receive feedback on what type of and how much exercise they need to do in order to lower their risk of future fractures so they can spend more time doing the exercise and less time pondering about the nature of it.
Digital health can also play an important role in allowing clinicians to make early diagnoses of diseases through the capturing and analysing of patient-related data. For example, our lab is currently developing digital technologies, which involve sound and imaging techniques, in order to aid the early diagnosis of spinal fractures. This type of fracture is the most common type in osteoporosis sufferers, but current diagnosis methods can only correctly diagnose about one-third of cases. Our research aims to improve this situation so that more patients with this type of fracture can be diagnosed as early as possible, meaning they can receive the appropriate treatment.
Digital health is bringing fundamental changes to healthcare. It provides a powerful tool which allows people to improve their wellbeing and take preventive measures against diseases. This is what healthy ageing is all about: to live years full of life rather than life full of years.
Students studying our BSc Bioscience (Healthcare Technology) will gain a greater insight into this subject area as part of their course.