How health apps could support older adults with their health

How health apps could support older adults with their health
© iStock/Cecilie_Arcurs

Health apps can track everything from exercise and calories to blood pressure and blood sugar, but why don’t older adults utilise them to stay healthy or manage chronic conditions?

A new poll showed that most people over 50 years old aren’t using health apps and those who would get the most help out of them are less likely to use them.

The poll is based at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and is supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical centre.

Utilising health apps

Less than half (44%) of people aged 50 to 80 have never used a health app on their smartphone, wearable device or tablet, according to the new findings from the National Poll on Healthy Aging.

The poll uncovered that those who are in poor health, and those with lower incomes or education levels, were far less likely to have used these apps. Half of those who have not used such apps, or have stopped using them, said they were not interested in utilising them.

The percentage of older adults who currently use at least one app is even small, at 28%. One-third of this group used an app to track exercise, whilst a smaller percentage used health apps to track sleep, weight, nutrition, blood pressure, meditate, or manage mental health and stress. One-quarter of current users have shared information from apps with their health care providers.

“Now that most older adults have at least one mobile device, health-related apps can provide an opportunity to support their health-related behaviours, manage their conditions and improve health outcomes,” said Pearl Lee, M.D., M.S., a geriatrician at Michigan Medicine who worked on the poll report.

Managing diabetes

Furthermore, 28% of older adults who have diabetes use a health app on their device to log their blood sugar levels and 14% use an app to log their medications. But nearly half of older people with diabetes said they would be interested in using an app in both of these ways.

The poll included questions about continuous glucose monitors, which people with diabetes can wear on their skin to monitor their blood sugar over the long term. These monitors can connect with mobile devices to send the readings into a health app.

Only 11% of the poll respondents who have Type 2 diabetes said they currently use a CGM, though another 68% had heard of such devices and over half of them said they would potentially be interested in using one.

“AARP’s research has found a sharp increase in older adults purchasing and using technology during the pandemic, and many are interested in using technology to track health measures,” said Indira Venkat, Vice President, Consumer Insights at AARP. “With more people 50+ owning and using technology, we may start to see an increase in older adults using apps to monitor their health.”

Disparities in app use

Recent data show that 83% of people aged 50 to 64, and 61% of people over age 65, own a smartphone, and just under half of the people in each age group own a tablet device. This percentage has increased from 34% of 50-64-year-olds and 13% of those over 65 having a smartphone a decade ago, and even lower percentages having tablets at the time. Despite this increase, the poll highlighted disparities in the use of mobile health apps by income and education level, as well as age. It also shows that lack of awareness or mistrust of the security of health apps may be holding many older adults back.

Poll director Preeti Malani, M.D., an infectious disease physician with training in geriatrics at Michigan Medicine, noted that older adults with incomes over $100,000 were nearly three times more likely than those with incomes under $30,000 to use health apps, at 43% vs 15%. Those with college degrees were more than twice as likely to use these apps as those who had not completed high school.

“People who describe their health as fair or poor – the people who might be most in need of the kind of tracking, support and information a good health app can give – were significantly less likely to use such apps than those who say they’re in excellent, very good or good health,” Malani noted. “Health providers should consider discussing the use of health apps with their patients because one-third said they had never thought about using one.”

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