Technology’s aim: Better, longer life

The fountain of youth, it turns out, exists not in some distant, exotic land but right here in that vast repository of information known as big data.

The fountain of youth, it turns out, exists not in some distant, exotic land but right here in that vast repository of information known as big data.

Medical science is growing in leaps and bounds with the advent of cloud systems able to store previously unimaginable amounts of information; applications to sort, categorize, and connect that data; advances in genetic research; and the rapid expansion of digital and mobile technology. According to physician and author Eric Topol, innovations in technology have enabled us to learn more about disease in the past several years alone than in all of the rest of history combined.

The prognosis: not just longer life, but a better life for all, even in underdeveloped parts of the world.

Cellphones and tablets; smart monitors embedded in wristbands, headbands, wearable patches, shoe inserts, and other devices; and programs to analyze the data they produce can already provide us with up-to-the-instant, continual snapshots of our own vital signs. Our mobile devices can tell us our pulse, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels at any given moment, and give us a view of our sleep patterns, enabling us to keep track of our bodies’ health. Soon, we’ll be able to screen ourselves for various types of cancers. Pregnant women will be able to conduct and view ultrasound scans of their own developing fetuses. We’ll even be able to generate our own genetic maps and interpret the results.1

Think globally, treat locally

The data those technologies generate can now be sifted and studied to teach medical researchers more than ever about disease and its underlying causes. Physicians armed with this information will diagnose treatments specific to not only a particular problem, but also to the individual patient. Already, some medicines’ labels advise different doses—or no dose at all—depending on certain genetic variations. Doctors will be able to do the same by applying big-data trends to their patients based on medical history, genetic makeup, environment, lifestyle, and other factors.

The vast sea of data being collected and stored is also strengthening preventative medicine. Does a town or region have more than its share of cancer cases? Analysts will be able to spot the trend and pinpoint the cause. What role does physical exercise—or a lack of it—play in illnesses of the mind such as Alzheimer’s, or in preventing cancer, or in the development of diabetes? Is it ever too late to build bone density? Big data could answer these questions and more, including those we’d never even thought to ask.

An exciting new age

Doctors aren’t the only ones who stand to gain from these developments. Nutritionists, physical therapists, and even personal trainers may benefit from big data’s big-picture scenarios as well as having a detailed snapshot of each client. Patients, of course, will be the greatest beneficiaries of all.

Just as we shake our heads at some medical practices of the past, future generations will certainly view modern medicine with an incredulous eye. How exciting it is to live in the here and now, on the cusp of revolutionary changes that could foster greater quality of life for us, our children, and all of humanity in the ages to come. Now, what will we do with our longer, healthier lives?