AARP chief medical officer: Rethink aging with tech's help

Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer at AARP, discusses the assets of age and which technologies could help address isolation and loneliness.
By Laura Lovett
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As more and more baby boomers begin to hit that silver milestone of senior status, the way society looks at aging could also be on the brink of transformation. Technologies are now enabling seniors to stay involved in the community and connect with other. 

“If we want to change how we age we need to think about the assets of age, it brings the ability to be resilient and adapt,” Dr. Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer at AARP told MobiHealthNews. “That means if you have a sense of purpose and have people around you that can led to a positive view of aging. That matters because purpose is associated with better outcomes — less dementia, fewer heart attacks, more preventative services but also lower healthcare costs.”

Yeh will be presenting the opening keynote at HIMSS19’s Healthy Aging and Technology Symposium.

The healthcare industry has often turned to technology as a way to facilitate healthy aging. But it’s important to be mindful about the tools, Yeh said, and digital platforms can have both positive and negative effects. 

“Technology can be good and bad because, as you know with social media, you can connect to more and be engaged even if you are alone and separated. On the other hand it can promote isolation because you feel like you are outside the party,” Yeh said. “We have to think of technology as that double-edge sword to make sure that we are promoting that positive connection instead of loneliness.”

Hearing loss is prevalent condition among older adults, which can lead to isolation and loneliness. However, there are several barriers in getting that technology to seniors, Yeh said. 

“Technology for hearing devices has improved a lot but it still remains inaccessible to the vast majority of [older] adults for two reasons. One is the cost. The current model for hearing aides is thousands of dollars per hearing aid per year. It is not covered by Medicare because Medicare calls hearing loss a normal part of aging, so why should we fix it.”

But not having access to hearing aides can have devastating results, she said referring to an upcoming study in JAMA Otolaryngology, which looks at thousands of people with more than 10 years of uncorrected hearing loss. The study found that individuals in this pool have a higher risk of dementia, depression and other conditions. 

Hearing is also important for new technology coming on the market — namely voice. 

“There is so much excitement over voice technology … well, if we don’t consider how it is going to work with people with hearing loss and impairments then the majority of the aging population and older adults will be missing out on an entire market of people who could take advantage of the ease, and convince, and excitement of voice technology.”

She said it is important to think about things like captioning and compatibility with hearing devices. 

In general, Yeh said that technology could be key to helping seniors adapt over time. For example, if a senior has trouble with mobility technology could be a solution for filling this gap. But she warns that technology should be fit to meet the needs of older adults instead of creating technology and then pushing it on patients. 

“I am excited about technology and I know the generations that are coming up are going to bring a whole new level of adaptation and acceptance as we age but I think what is really, really important is not that we should be wishing older adults embrace technology but that technology should be embracing older adults,” she said. “You want to make it ... convenient, intuitive, simple easy to use and adapt to a wide range of capabilities. … If we can help people not only remain independent in their homes but independent so they can go out and visit, be in the community and work longer than they do, then you will be talking about technology that has embraced aging and helped us be more capable than ever.”

Yeh will be presenting at a HIMSS19 session called “Personal Perspectives: Using Technology to Improve Quality of Life as We Age.” It’s scheduled for Monday, February 11 at 8:45 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. in room W208C. 

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