Aging populations offer opportunities for innovation

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Recent news reports of scientific success in restoring lost memory in mice and the hope the research results may hold for Alzheimer sufferers got me thinking. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), there were an estimated 44.4 million people living with dementia worldwide in 2013. This number will increase to an estimated 75.6 million in 2030 and 135.5 million in 2050. The fastest growth in the elderly population and where dementia will be most prevalent is in China, India, and other Asia-Pacific countries. In Japan more 4.6 million people are living with dementia. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia.

These figures present a huge opportunity for innovators in the health care sector to come up with high tech health care solutions to help the growing senior population cope with dementia. Consider this: if dementia care were a company, it would be the world’s largest by annual revenue exceeding Wal-Mart (US$414 billion) and Exxon Mobil (US$311 billion) – ADI.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are not getting the attention they need partly because of the conviction that since they are incurable there is no hope. The truth is that getting proper diagnosis early on can make a big difference in the quality of life for sufferers and their families.

Companies working on the dementia problem

Diamentech is a young company steering technology to improve diagnosis of dementia. The research-based healthcare company has developed a technique for the early detection of the disease. Currently diagnosis is slow, not easily accessible and expensive. Diamentech’s technique makes it possible for people at risk of dementia to receive medication before the onset of any cognitive symptoms.

Captain Yamagata Corporation, a semi-public corporation based in Yamagata city, and the National Institute of Technology at the Tsuruoka College in Yamagata Prefecture, are using the Internet of Things to track elderly dementia sufferers getting lost in Sakata, Japan.

Wi-Fi devices installed around the city in stores and on vending machines pick up a signal from a device worn by an elderly person. Family members are notified of details, such as when the person passes a certain location, through automatic emails sent to their mobile phones. The system is currently being tested in the Yawata district of Sakata. The devices are small and light for sufferers to wear and give family members peace of mind. The affordable system uses eleven Wi-Fi installations in the area and a small transmitter powered by a button cell battery that costs around 1,500 yen and lasts for two years. NTT East Corporation is providing free transmission.

On iTunes you can find a mobile app for seniors and people struggling with the cognitive impairments that accompany Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Clevermind helps users to surf the Internet, connect with their loved ones, and stay independently entertained while strengthening their cognitive proficiency with a collections of games aimed at mental exercise. The app features an interface with large, easy-to-read buttons and a virtual assistant called MYIRA, complete with visual depiction of dialogues.

Dementia in Japan

The cost to the Japanese economy to provide health and social care for dementia sufferers was an astronomical 14.5 trillion yen in 2014. In addition, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has estimated that 100,000 people quit their jobs each year to care for affected family members.

With its rapidly aging population the spectre of growing numbers of elderly suffering from dementia is a real nightmare for the Japanese government. A nightmare for the authorities translates into an opportunity for sharp innovators.

So far, Japanese companies have come up with a rather controversial solution to the large numbers of elderly dementia sufferers who need constant care: robots. Controversial, because it seems rather cold to have a bunch of cutely disguised circuitry take care of sick elderly people. On the other hand, in a technologically advanced country with a rapidly diminishing workforce, the employment of robots seems a practical solution to this problem.

The scale of robot usage to take care of elderly dementia sufferers in Japan is unclear but appears to be growing. As life expectancy increases in other parts of the world, the challenge of how to best take care of elderly dementia sufferers will require greater levels of cooperation between governments and healthcare innovators.