The 2016 International Consumer Electronics Show is underway in Las Vegas, and tens of thousands have gathered to gawk at the latest gadgets and speculate about the wild possibilities of futuristic technologies. But while throngs of youngsters compare notes on smell-based alarm clocks and video conferencing for their pets, the most interesting stuff is happening at the Venetian, where the Digital Health Summit is taking place.
Of the many provocative panels - on genomics, maternal health, big data - one stood out in particular. It was called "Disrupting Dementia," and it asked the tech-savvy CES audience to help join the fight against Alzheimer's.
According to the panel, the first wave of technologies that have been designed to help those with Alzheimer's and their caregivers have flopped. Technologies haven't yet understood the real problems that people confront when they are on their Alzheimer's journeys, and so they are of limited use.
This panel tried to teach the pain-points of Alzheimer's to the tech audience so they could understand the problems that need solving. The panel collected an impressive group of thought leaders, with Dr. Jeff Cummings from the Cleveland Clinic, Professor Alex Mihailidis from the University of Toronto, and Terry Bradwell from AARP. It was also moderated by Andrew Wright from Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, who oversees their Digital Medicines.
As the next step of this critical work, the organizers of the panel announced a pitch session at 2016's Alzheimer's Association International Conference, where tech entrepreneurs will be able to present their ideas to leaders from dementia research, medicine, and industry. This pitch session will connect the most promising projects with consultation and mentorship from organizations of Alzheimer's experts and industry.
At CES - an at-times self-congratulatory gee-whiz factory - this panel on Alzheimer's was the highlight. The reason why is simple: if we don't get better at caring for those with Alzheimer's, this "miracle of longevity" is going to devastate us on personal, societal, and global levels. Alzheimer's already consumes 1 percent of global GDP, and rates of Alzheimer's will double every 20 years.
This is the need - and the incredible market opportunity - for technology. Done right, technology could prolong independence for those with Alzheimer's disease, boost workforce productivity by helping their caregivers, and take part in building age-friendly cities, all while increasing revenues for tech companies and innovators.
This is where much of CES swings-and-misses. Too much stuff is for the young and hip. This outdated assumption closes off a robust engine for growth, and a future in which older people leverage innovations to age successfully.
Tech could also address the natural physical deterioration of our skin, vision, hearing, bones and muscle; those components of what the WHO calls "functional ability" in their report on aging and health. As an array of behaviors play into the progression of functional ability, tech that helps us track, manage and improve multiple factors across our life-course could empower users to control this fundamental aspect of our health.
Tech can also drive forward innovations in caregiving. Companies like Home Instead have crafted a new, hands-on way to provide care that is more personal and cost-effective than traditional institutions. Yet the possibilities of tech could catapult home-care forward.
And the makers of technologies that solve for the problems of aging will earn more than just a warm fuzzy feeling and a pat on the back. Industries like fashion and cinema have already realized that older Americans represent a tremendous untapped market. If growing interest at events like CES leads techies to follow suit, they will discover a new base of customers, and accompanying revenues, in an older, more prosperous economy.
Such innovations will constitute a critical element of older adults' daily lives in the dawning era of tech-enhanced aging. The tech community loves to look to the future, and ours will be determined by how we handle aging.
So let's not just disrupt dementia. Let's disrupt aging.