Apple’s New Health Features

Apple’s New Health Features

Apple’s new health features will be available to anyone with an iPhone. But two tools announced at WWDC 2021, walking stability and the ability to share health data with family members, can be especially helpful for older adults.

People who work with seniors are happy that a company like Apple is interested in technology that can be used for this group. Experts have been frustrated for years that companies are not developing products to meet the needs of this demographic. There have been several attempts to introduce new tools, but none of them have met with much success, says Richard Schultz, a social psychologist who studies aging at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I think the reason is because the big guys – companies like Apple – never did it,” says Schultz. New features are a signal that the situation is beginning to change. “Apple’s interference in this is a big deal.”

Fear of falling

The first feature, the Walking Stability Indicator, targets a serious problem for older people: falling. Falls are the leading cause of accidents, injury, and death for older people in the United States, and they are responsible for billions in health care costs each year. Researchers have been studying falls – and trying to find ways to prevent them – for decades, according to Jacob Sosnoff, who studies mobility in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

“We can do a really good job in the laboratory, measuring gait disturbances and making predictions and recommendations, but we’re not very good in the real world,” Sosnoff says.

Apple’s new Stability Walking feature aims to keep track of people in their daily lives. It uses metrics such as walking speed, stride length and ground contact time for both feet to track how stable a user is. It can only be measured on an iPhone, not an Apple Watch, because some metrics need to be calculated as close to the hip as possible, Apple says, so it’s best in a pocket or bag.

Apple Watch already has a fall detection feature that can prompt users to call emergency services or automatically call if the user is stationary for about a minute. The new iPhone features are predictive, not responsive: they can tell people if they’re walking steadily and issue a warning if they think they’re at increased risk of falling. Apple says the system is based on data collected from a clinical study involving more than 100,000 participants of all ages.

There are no major commercial products that track the quality of movement of people, Sosnoff said. Until now, most motion trackers have focused on how many people were moving. “This is why this is causing a lot of excitement,” he says. “It is important that people are aware of the risk of falling.”

But there is also a downside to telling people that they can fall – the fear of falling is associated with the actual fall. If warnings exacerbate that fear, people may limit their physical activity or even stop leaving their homes that much, says Clara Berridge, a University of Washington professor of medical technology for an aging population. “This is likely to contribute to their actual risk of falling because they decrease their strength and activity,” she says.

According to Sosnov, this is a good balance. “We want people to be aware of the risks, but not too worried about doing nothing.”

Sosnoff says he is anxious to know if walking stability can actually reduce falls in real-life conditions. One of the problems for the instrument can be the observation of people who have impaired walking, such as lame people. Algorithms that track gait often don’t work in these situations, he said. If Apple’s feature has such a problem, it may flag people with a different walking style who may not actually be at risk of falling.

Apple’s feature may not help everyone at risk of falling. Walking patterns are just one of the many reasons people fall: poor eyesight can cause people to stumble as they age, certain medications can impair balance, and objects in the home (such as loose rugs) can be dangerous. Apple’s Walking Stability feature is designed to enable people at risk of falls to do a variety of stability exercises that may be helpful in some cases. But for some people, balance may not be the main issue. “Invitation to exercise isn’t the only solution,” says Berridge.

To get information about the user’s walk, it is also necessary that he regularly carries the phone with him. Sosnoff says he is not sure if this is really the case. Many may use their phones differently than young people. “I know a lot of older people who leave their phone on the counter like a regular phone,” he says.

Still, a player like Apple working on crashes has its advantages. “They will have a significant amount of data to help them see what’s going on,” Sosnoff says. If the iPhone could truly prevent falls, it would be a huge boon. “We bring people back together if they fall and get injured, but we really don’t do much to stop the fall. It would be great if we could. “

Data exchange

Apple will also now allow users to share their health data with others. This feature can be very handy for family members and caregivers who may want or need to track someone’s health indicators. Currently, they may have to collect information from several different sources – heart rate applications, blood pressure measurement systems. Apple’s sharing feature can give them direct access from one place.

“I’ve seen this extremely attractive to adult children,” says Berridge.

It also raises concerns about privacy for seniors. The Apple function is completely controlled by the user, who decides in the application what information he wants to share and with whom. In reality, however, older people who dislike technology may not be able to make this decision on their own.

“Very often, an adult child buys a phone for an older adult, adjusts the settings, takes the phone out of his hands and says,“ Let me just fix it for you, ”Berridge says. “This elderly person will lose the ability to withhold this information from a family member.”

It may be very convenient for some people to open their Health app to family members, but there is still a powerful dynamic involved. Older people tend to be less fond of monitoring technology than their adult children and say they want to maintain privacy without feeling that they are being watched. But their grown children are confident they can convince parents to use the monitoring technology, even if they say they are uncomfortable, as shown in a study by Berridge. “They don’t necessarily tend to engage them in conversation, they’re just very confident that their preferences will prevail at the end of the day,” she says.

On the other hand, adult children using this feature may find themselves inundated with information about their older parents that they don’t know how to interpret, says social psychologist Schultz. “A decision needs to be made about how this information is analyzed and translated for the person who gains access,” he says.

In practice, Berridge isn’t sure how helpful it would be for a family member to see all of the Health app data. “People can say, okay, what exactly should I do with this information? At what point does it matter, when should I call a doctor, etc. It can also be an alarming overload situation. ” she said.

Despite these concerns, there is growing interest in ways to keep older people healthy at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that care facilities for the elderly can be dangerous and people generally don’t want to live in them, Berridge says. Apple’s new features underscore a move in this direction. “Moving the monitoring system from the premises to the home will be the main trend,” she says.