Historians distinguish between various ages in the development of man. The Iron Age changed agricultural practices, the Industrial Age ushered in mass production, and the economies of our Digital Age are based on information and computerization. Recent developments, however, raise the question of whether our era is not defined by data but by our pursuit of a longer, happier and more balanced life. Perhaps we are at the dawn of the Age of Health.

Advances in mobile and sensor technologies are giving rise to personal health devices that monitor heart rate, sleep patterns, calorie intake and exercise regimes. Early adopters tend to be fitness enthusiasts, but the real value lies in reaching those with unhealthy lifestyles. Digital health programmes could help them to prevent or manage chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, which are linked to unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol. The World Health Organisation expects the number of non-communicable diseases to increase from 36 million in 2008 to 55 million in 2030 unless action is taken.

Three next steps

Three things need to happen to enable a broader adoption of health devices. Beyond being wearable, they need to offer digital health programmes in close cooperation with GPs, hospitals and pharmacies. Based on the information from our devices, medical professionals can provide us with advice, such as, say, getting a preventive health check or medical treatment. These devices should also talk to insurance companies, so people can be reimbursed for taking part in digital health programmes. If digital health programmes become a seamless part of the healthcare system, they can truly improve an individual’s health and well-being, improve the quality of healthcare and potentially reduce the cost of the system as a whole.

A second change is that the devices underlying the digital health improvement programmes need to measure our health more broadly and express it more in actions we can take. Health relates to our mental and physical – some even say social – functioning and is the result of genetic predisposition, environmental conditions and individual lifestyle. Measuring only one aspect of our health – say, calorie intake – makes little sense in light of something so complex. So to say anything worthwhile about our health, wearables need to take a holistic approach and measure many things at the same time, with blood pressure, in particular, a strong indicator of our overall functioning.

Still, a broader data set is not meaningful in and of itself. Are we healthy if we have taken 10,000 steps today? Should we be worried if we sleep six hours instead of eight? A relatively new and useful way of expressing our health is by calculating our health age. Not to be confused with the Age of Health in which we now live, the health age says we are as healthy as an average person of that age. So a 57-year-old who eats well and exercises regularly can have a health age of 45, while an overweight and stressed smoker aged 46 can have a health age of 62. This number tells a powerful story that is bound to alert people to the reality of their lifestyle.

Changing behaviour takes time

Meaningful information doesn’t necessarily change people’s behaviour overnight. It takes weeks, if not months, of consistent practice before behaviour becomes integrated comfortably into a person’s life. So for wearable devices to get people to actually change their lifestyle for the better, they need to be able to motivate people over longer periods of time. Rather than just smart measuring tools, the next generation of health wearables need to become inspiring coaches with a solid understanding of the human psyche.

If digital health programmes can evolve along these lines, they will foster a true shift in how people lead their lives. For most of medical history, people were passive recipients of advice from trained professionals. Now, people are being empowered to take control of their own health and make conscious choices, not only to avoid illness but also to lead longer and happier lives. And this could be the central theme of our age. We are more and more concerned with leading meaningful and purposeful lives in which mind and body are in balance. If done right, digital health programmes can become the technology that ushers in the Age of Health.

Author: Pieter Nota is Group Executive Vice President of Royal Philips

Image: Pharmaceutical tablets and capsules in foil strips are arranged on a table in this picture illustration taken in Ljubljana September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic.