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Digital technologies for healthy ageing

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Our world is ageing rapidly. According to UN DESA, the number of people aged 65 or older is projected to grow from 703 million people in 2019 to 1.5 billion by 2050. UN DESA’s latest projections also show that the number of people aged 80+ will triple in the next 30 years. By 2050, one in six people in the world will be over the age 65, up from just one in eleven in 2019. It is for this reason that this is the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing 2020–2030.

The race is on to scale up the necessary digital technologies to help people age more healthily and live longer fulfilling lives, as well as helping societies cope with larger numbers of older and elderly people. New and emerging tech, including artificial intelligence (AI) and other applications, can enhance well-being, enable people to grow older in healthier ways, and expand access to better healthcare.

Digital technologies support healthy ageing in multiple ways, including:

  1. Improving the prevention of illness and boosting health and well-being at all ages via devices and apps (sensors, monitors, wristwatches, and mobiles) for continual health monitoring and feedback.
  2. Empowering patients with reliable health information and healthcare providers, managers, and policy-makers with tools to build and operate more resilient health systems, deliver better care, and improve treatments and survival rates.
  3. Enriching health datasets, enabling increasingly accurate analysis, diagnosis, and prediction of health issues, including through AI, big data, or virtual reality (VR) simulations. Aggregated data from devices and sensors brings together imaging, diagnoses, and data analytics through computing at the edge.
  4. Improving ICT/accessibility ensures that everyone regardless of age, gender, or ability, can equally and equitably access, and make use of the information and communication (ICTs). Implementing ICT accessibility also provides alternative solutions to the use of technology and thus, ensures that age-related disabilities such as reduced vision and hearing loss do not impact the access to digital products and services nor to understanding the information and communication, which in case of emergency or crisis could be vital. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technologies have been key to combatting loneliness and isolation among older people cut off from family and friends.
  5. Compensating for problems and challenges that frequently accompany older age, such as reduced vision or hearing.
  6. Reducing social isolation for older persons. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technologies have helped to combat loneliness and isolation among elderly people cut off from family and friends.


   Growing numbers with unequal access

One challenge derives from the sheer size of the demographic bulge, with the world's total number of people aged 65 or older set to grow by 800 million by 2050. While many of those people will inhabit urban centres, others will live in rural, remote, or inaccessible areas.

Age-based discrimination in the workplace and inadequate financial inclusion for older persons are key challenges to address for this population to benefit fully from digital transformation.

Telehealth services have become vital to extend high-quality care beyond urban centres. Similarly, telemedicine and virtual healthcare have come to the fore during the COVID 19 pandemic, offsetting limited physical access between patients and healthcare providers. Even so, telemedicine has so far largely attracted well- educated and comparatively younger people, who, on average, need less healthcare for the time being.

Decentralized data and advice

Personal health and fitness devices can also support healthy ageing, although not as a substitute for professional care and interventions. Historically, healthcare systems have tended to prioritize cures over prevention, and interventionist rather than preventive medicine. The wealth of fitness trackers and health apps now available can serve as helpful guides to promote good health at all ages, without their advice being taken too literally. For instance, the medical and scientific basis for apps promoting “10,000 steps per day" is unclear.

Some patients now come to see their doctors armed with large files and databases of health data (e.g., cardiac rhythms, oxygenation levels, etc.), which doctors may be unable to directly download or properly analyse. General practitioners may struggle to keep up with this deluge of data, while health systems and health insurance plans may not reimburse doctors for time spent dealing with e-mails or external data.

Clearly, the consequences of digital transformation – as well as patient digital literacy – for today's health systems are still being worked out.​​

ITU‘s contribution

Digital technologies for older persons and healthy ageing​

World Telecommunication & Information Society Day (WTISD) directly addresses the global ageing trend in 2022 with a focus on “Digital technologies for older persons and healthy ageing. ITU's key anniversary, celebrated every 17 May, has thereby added momentum to initiatives promoting healthy ageing in an increasingly digital world.

ITU, in line with the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030), is committed to ensuring that everyone, regardless of age, gender, or ability, can equally and equitably make use of ICTs. The digital inclusion workstream in ITU's Development Sector pays particular attention to ageing in the digital world .

Broadly, such programmes serve to raise awareness, produce guidelines, advise on policies and strategies, share good practices, and strengthen the capacity of countries and communities to adopt innovative digital solutions. These, in turn, help to achieve key economic and social benefits – thereby turning the challenge of digital uptake into the opportunity of digital transformation.

Standards, guidelines, and partnerships for healthy ageing

Consultations at ITU helped to establish the original national and international emergency phone numbers and ensure guaranteed quality of service. For more on this, see the backgrounder on numbering. Global standards agreed between governments, experts, and industry players ensure that everyone, including the elderly, can contact emergency services whenever needed.

This work includes technical specifications or safe standards for audio ​quality to protect users’ hearing capabilities and prevent damage to hearing. In 2019, ITU and WHO issued a new international standard for the manufacture and use of smart devices, including smartphones and audio players, to make them safer for listening. For more information, see the backgrounder on accessibility.

Various international technical standards address digital health, m-Health, and telemedicine. A recently approved standard for accessible telehealth systems and services was developed jointly by ITU and WHO amid increased telehealth reliance during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a view to addressing barriers for persons with disabilities or specific needs, such as the elderly. For more information, see the backgrounder on ICTs and health.

Recent studies on mobile and digital health

ITU has published several reports on ageing. Be He@lthy, Be Mobile – A handbook on how to implement m​-Ageing consolidates information for implementation partners wishing to establish mobile health for non-communicable disease (NCD) projects within the proven Be He@lthy, Be Mobile framework. It explains how to set up and run programmes, how to deliver a desired health impact at scale, and how to integrate mobile health with non-digital health services – presenting this in the form of plug-and-play, ready-to-use options.

ITU’s 2021 Ageing in a digital world report addresses the nexus of digital technologies and steadily ageing populations. The report highlights trends, identifies good practices and viable solutions, and presents guidelines to leverage the contributions of older generations, reduce their age-related vulnerability and foster their socio-economic development for healthier and wealthier inclusive societies.

In addition, ITU has developed an online, self-paced training package, “ICT for better ageing and livelihood in the digital landscape”, which is available in English, French and Spanish​. ITU training resources are free of charge, offered in multiple languages, enhanced with localized content where applicable, and available in digitally accessible formats.

ITU has contributed to a joint advocacy brief with WHO and UN DESA on social isolation and loneliness among older people​; as well as to UNECE discussions,​ including the 14th meeting of the Standing Working Group on Ageing and the related Policy Seminar on Ageing in the Digital Era​.

WSIS Forum track on ICTs and older persons

Since 2018, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum has organized an ICTs and Older Persons Track. This aims to promote healthier ageing, highlight digital solutions to fight age-based discrimination in the workplace, ensure the financial inclusion of older persons, and support caregivers and digital inclusion, all in line with the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030).

A virtual “Ageing Better with ICTs and Older Persons” hackathon during WSIS Forum 2021, organized by ITU and the Global Coalition on Aging (GCOA), along with WHO, UN DESA and other stakeholders, attracted over 1,100 participants from 48 countries. The hackathon generated ideas about ICT solutions to address Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, frailty, transport and mobility challenges, and the growing need for financial tools for longevity. Find out more at:​.

WSIS Forum 2022 has again brought together UN agencies, policy- and decision-makers, government and company representatives, and multiple other stakeholders to identify concrete steps and activities to advance connectivity and digital uptake worldwide. Key events during the forum include ITU-led High-Level Dialogue on “ICTs and digital technologies for older persons – moving together from 'why' to 'what' and 'how'​,” and Cross-Sectoral Ministerial Dialogue on “The key role of digital technologies to ensure healthy and active ageing for present and future generations”.

The 2022 edition has introduced the WSIS Forum Healthy Ageing Innovation Prize, which recognizes how various products, services, and platforms can improve people’s ability to function as they age. Prizes have been offered in the following categories, in line with UN/WHO Action Areas for the Decade of Healthy Ageing: Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline; frailty; immunizations; transportation and mobility; and elder caregiving. See​

The WSIS Forum has also launched a WSIS Multi-stakeholder Alliance on ICTs and Older Persons​, with four working groups: Design & Accessibility, Capacity Building & Education, Cybersecurity, and Innovation.

Last update: May ​2022