In recent years, we have seen an increase in extreme weather events, be it periods of heat waves throughout the summer or cold waves during the winter.(1, 2) If some are one-time events, others are part of the long-term effects of global climate change. That being said, there is a growing body of research evidence about the negative impact of extreme weather events to human health (and particularly to older adults).(3)
Let's take heat waves as an example. Research evidence shows that older adults are more likely to be vulnerable, whether because of social factors such as social isolation, or physical factors such as chronic conditions (for example, cardiovascular disease, emphysema, asthma, kidney disease, neurological disease, hypertension, or diabetes), or a decreased ability to regulate their body temperature.(4)
Is it possible to better support older adults to manage their health and well-being, especially during extreme weather events? Are there mobile apps combining information about their health status with information about the environment outside their home (for example, extreme temperatures, icy conditions, or poor air quality)?
What research tells us
A recent systematic review examined 35 studies about the use of mobile apps for older adults to prevent and manage chronic conditions, as well as encouraging access to activities outside their home.(5) These mobile apps are computer programs or software applications designed to run on mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets.
The review identified a broad range of mobile apps that can support self-management (for example, tracking information about their health, symptoms, medications, food and exercise), can help to conduct home tests and electronically communicate results to a health professional; can allow for continuous home monitoring, and can complete geriatric self-assessments.
Yet, the review revealed some key limitations of the mobile apps studied. These apps have generally been developed to target a single health condition (for example, coronary artery disease, dementia, or type 2 diabetes), rather than taking a more holistic approach to health that considers the whole person and how he or she interacts with his or her environment. None of the identified mobile apps were designed to access information about the environment outside the homes of older adults.
The authors of the review are encouraging the development of holistic mobile apps that can integrate information and data from multiple sources (including about older adults' health and their external environment). Such applications could help in the prevention and management of chronic diseases, and improving the health and well-being of older adults. For example, these apps could provide personalized warnings (and recommendations) based on the person's location, weather conditions and health status, using GPS coordinates and health data.
The unfinished potential of mobile apps
This review reveals the unfinished potential of mobile apps. In a context where older adults have positive views towards technologies and are increasingly connected, mobile apps are likely to become increasingly popular. Findings from a recent survey commissioned by AGE-WELL, a federally funded Network of Centres of Excellence, and conducted by Environics Research, reveal that:
- 74% of those aged 65+ and 80% of those aged 50-64 report feeling confident using current technology;
- over 8 in 10 Canadians 65+ believe technological advancements can help older adults stay safe, independent and stay in their own homes longer;
- 86% of Canadians aged 65+ and 94% of Canadians aged 50+ report being online daily; and
- 58% of Canadians aged 65+ and almost 8 in 10 (78%) aged 50-64 own smartphones.(6)
Yet, some providers argued that we need to be cautious. While mobile apps may hold great potential, they may also cause some people to feel unnecessary anxiety about their health.(7)