Role of wearable activity-tracking technologies on the well-being and quality of life of people aged 55 and over

About the project

In our Sir Halley Stewart Trust-funded digital health wearables project (May 2016 - April 2017) and in collaboration with Age UK Milton Keynes, we are investigating whether and how wearable activity-tracking technologies can acceptably contribute towards self-monitoring of activity and health by people aged 55 years and over. Example technologies include those from Fitbit, Jawbone, or smart watches from Apple or Samsung. Typically, these devices record steps walked, sleep patterns, or calories expended.

Empirical research

Our aim has been to determine the potential of these technologies in improving the physical and mental well-being of older people through active lifestyles, and the possible use of data by medical professionals for diagnosis and timely interventions. We have applied a number of data-collection methods such as workshops, surveys and diaries to investigate:

  • experiences of the people aged 55 and over who are already using these technologies;
  • experiences of people aged 55 and over who haven’t used these activity-trackers before and who were given devices in this project – challenges of adoption, whether/how the behaviours of these participants changes; and
  • usability aspects related to the design and use of these devices.

Some preliminary observations from our data

People aged 55 years and over who are already using these activity-trackers (from a month to over an year) and who filled up our survey (n=510) reported that the use of these technologies had ‘made them more conscious of their level of activity’:

  • (79.24%) and 45.55% of the participants said that they were more active since using these devices;
  • 27.75% felt more fit since using these devices and 42.58% reported that they felt better informed about their diet, sleep and activity-levels; and
  • 31.83% of the participants stated that they shared the data with family, friends, activity groups (e.g. walking groups), medical/healthcare professionals and even insurance companies.

We gave activity-trackers to 21 participants in the 55 - 82 age-range. Through monthly workshops, diaries, and one-to-one interviews, we investigated the changes in behaviours of our participants.

Our investigations show:

  • an increase in activity levels in all the participants;
  • increased awareness of food intake; and
  • sharing of data with the GPs to diagnose some specific conditions related to the data from these devices – e.g. the non-optimal sleep patterns (one of them now has a sleep-treatment plan in place). 

The workshop-discussions since June 2016 have uncovered a number of challenges people over 55 years experience with using the activity-trackers - from opening the packaging, accessing the instructions/manuals online, knowing about and using the features of the device, making sense of the data and knowing what is optimal for them (10,000 steps/day might not be a target for somebody recovering from a knee surgery, for example).

Conclusions

Given the UK’s ageing profile and as part of the agendas of Active and Healthy Ageing and digital NHS, there is an increasing focus on maintaining health in later life and encouraging physical activity to preserve mobility and motor skills, and self-monitoring of health and medical conditions. The wider implications of our project are in determining how digital health wearables can be used for self-monitoring and self-management of health by older people; for remote-monitoring of specific conditions such as Parkinson's by carers and doctors, challenges for adoption of such devices; and the ethical/privacy dilemmas of sharing and usage of data.

Authors

  • Professor Shailey Minocha, Dr Duncan Banks, Dr Caroline Holland and Catherine McNulty, The Open University, UK
  • Jane Palmer, Age UK Milton Keynes

This project (May 2016 - April 2017) has been funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust. The views expressed in this blog-post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Trust.