The average life expectancy of an American is 80 years—for now. That number is set to march higher, with quality of life also improving, as the result of substantial changes in everything from our environment to healthcare. Simply put, we’re on the cusp of a longevity revolution. Recently, I wrote about how the air we breathe and the food we eat are laying the foundation for this revolution. But that’s just the beginning.
There are seven signs of this coming longevity revolution. In this article, I want to focus on the world of medicine—specifically, on how innovations in both hardware (such as wearables) and software (such as artificial intelligence) are moving us beyond a one-size-fits-all approach. Personalized medicine, fueled by the unprecedented availability of health data and sophisticated analytics, can extend our lifespans by revolutionizing diagnostics, treatment, monitoring, and drug discovery.
Indeed, the innovations that fall into this bucket could fill a whole book. As an introduction, this piece will emphasize wearables and AI, which offer a useful window into the promise of personalized medicine and its role in the coming longevity revolution.
Wearables enable 24/7 healthcare
Often, health is a lot simpler than we make it out to be. Apple Watch, for instance, is not just an activity tracker, but your own personalized healthcare device featuring heart rate monitoring, irregular heart rhythm detection, an ECG, fall detection, and emergency SOS. Soon, wearables will also be able to measure blood pressure and blood glucose for people with diabetes. This is just another example of the fact that the biggest players in tech are also on track to become the biggest healthcare companies in the future.
Another example of the potential for wearables is the Oura Ring. Its investors include BOLD Capital, co-founded by Peter Diamandis. Oura Ring brands itself as a small, personal wellness computer. The sleek gadget collects highly accurate data about the body, including whether you’re awake or active, and things like blood temperature and blood volume pulse. Digital health, including wearable devices, has “become inseparable from providing best practice health care,” as Dr. Bertalan Meskó, PhD, the Director of The Medical Futurist Institute analyzing how science fiction technologies can become a reality in medicine and healthcare, puts it. That’s in part because wearables enable continuous health monitoring outside the clinic.
Research correlates regular sleep patterns with longevity. In recent years, countless gadgets for tracking sleep have hit the market. Fitbit, which has sold nearly 80 million devices since 2010 and put wearables on the mainstream map, introduced its Sleep Stages technology in 2017. Using motion detection and heart rate variability, it estimates how much time users spend awake and in different depths of sleep throughout the night. In addition to giving individuals data on their sleep, the technology is a gold mine for sleep researchers. According to Fitbit, its longitudinal sleep database is the most extensive in the world.
Having baseline health measurements literally at our fingertips makes possible a new level of awareness about health, which is crucial for hardwiring healthy habits. Indeed, making seemingly small steps like getting sufficient sleep and engaging in regular physical activity are all it takes to add several decades to the current human lifespan. If you manage to live to 100, even more disruptive longevity technologies likely will be available by then (such as anti-aging, regenerative medicine, genome therapy, and more).
AI takes the wheel
Of course, personalized medicine is far more than a smartwatch strapped to your wrist—though the potential of such a seemingly simple (and now ubiquitous) gadget shouldn’t be underestimated. Another area that shouldn’t be overlooked is artificial intelligence, which can extend our lifespans by improving healthcare delivery. Perhaps the best-known example is IBM’s supercomputer, Watson. According to World Health, its AI has consumed 2 million pages containing 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, 25,000 training cases, and 14,700 hours of clinical training—and continues to consume more.
All this information makes Watson a cutting-edge and reliable medical resource (although it cannot fully use all the information it has digested so far). Still, Watson is a great example of the potential for AI to be used to diagnose patients. Diagnostics are crucial for the early detection and successful treatment of many diseases that reduce our lifespans. The medical company WellPoint claims that, in tests, Watson can successfully diagnose lung cancer 90% of the time. Human doctors not supported by AI, on the other hand, successfully diagnose lung cancer only about half of the time.
After diagnosis comes treatment. Watson’s vault of health information can improve that too. Big data and AI enable targeted personalized cancer treatment plans. In 2018 IBM extended a partnership with the Department of Veteran Affairs, two years after the launch of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, to offer veterans precision oncology. Since the partnership was originally announced, Watson has provided precision cancer care to more than 2,700 veterans.
The bottom line
Wearables and AI are just two illustrations, and perhaps the most mainstream, proving that personalized medicine is far from a pipe dream. New technologies have a tangible impact on healthcare today, which in turn will impact on how long humans live.
Building healthy habits and detecting deadly diseases early are two of the easiest ways to extend our lives. This is fuel for the longevity revolution, as it buys us time for more impactful technologies to make their way to the mass market.