“It’s already been scientifically proven that we could live up to 120 years old and our research shows that our muscles can grow beyond the age of 90 if we exercise properly,” says Kuno Shinya, a professor at Tsukuba University who has spent decades working to improve the health of Japan’s elderly. Kuno says this information is common knowledge among researchers but it hadn’t been applied or utilized for healthcare promotion. So, he set up a company – Tsukuba Wellness Research – to apply the results of his research to local communities.
Japan already has the oldest population in the world. A 2019 Cabinet Office report showed that 28.1 percent of Japan’s people in 2018 were aged over 65 and by 2065 that figure will be over 38 percent, but it’s not just a Japanese problem. According to a United Nations report, the aging of the world’s population is accelerating: “In 2019, there were 703 million persons aged 65 years or over in the global population. This number is projected to double to 1.5 billion in 2050.” These figures show how societies are aging around the world, but Kuno’s concern extends beyond these figures.
Making the Unhealthy Healthier
Kuno instituted a program in local areas of Japan that used individual monitoring devices to gather information – such as blood pressure, weight, fat ratio, steps taken – from elderly citizens to record their health statistics and create a database. An incentive system was also introduced, handing out rewards such as gift certificates to those doing more exercise. A program in Mitsuke City helped to increase the number of steps taken daily from around 6,000 to over 8,000 for those involved. The results showed that the health benefits could reduce medical expenses by $500 per person per year on average and up to $2,000 for those in their 70s.
Kuno’s other mission is to help the elderly who have no active interest in being healthy change their lifestyles to become healthier. One means of achieving this is the Social Impact Bond (SIB), a public-private collaborative system in which the public sector commissions results-based projects to the private sector in order to solve social challenges. “The government is starting to offer incentives to both individuals and local governments, which is a great step forward,” Kuno says. “We believe that the SIB system, which is focused on results, is a very useful methodology and we currently have more than 10 SIB projects under way with support from government subsidies.” Kuno emphasizes how the right programs can be used to improve the health of the elderly and how policies derived from data can reduce medical costs. One of these programs was SIBs, the other was the Smart Wellness City.
Kuno was attracted to the concept of the Smart Wellness City, “a city that is designed to make people healthy even if they have no active interest in being healthy.” The examples above are conscious ways of getting people to improve their health, but unconscious ways are equally effective. Tokyo, for example, has a low number of diabetic patients compared to other cities, and Kuno puts this down to the fact that people walk more and use cars less. The structure of the city improves its citizens’ health. “We must explore social technology together with scientific technology,” he adds. In other words: What can technology do to improve people’s health even when they are not consciously trying to be healthier?
Making Policy with Answers from AI
To analyze the impact of his programs on health, Kuno needed two things: data on how the elderly live their lives and a means to analyze this data. The results would help local (or national) governments create health policies. Kuno collaborated with the Life Value Creation Unit of NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting, a subsidiary of Japan’s largest telecommunications firm that aims to create a sustainable society. Together, they have developed the Smart Wellness City-AI (SWC-AI) program to evaluate health-related data and support local government initiatives to re-energize regional development and strengthen the ability of municipalities to formulate health policies based on data processed by AI.
“The SWC-AI initiative is an evidence-based way of understanding things on a broad level and using the data to formulate policy,” says Kitano Hiroyuki, a Senior Manager at the Life Value Creation Unit. SWC-AI was launched in 2020 and has already been utilized in about 10 municipalities. All the data is anonymous and provided with the consent of citizens, as well as being strictly secured using cyber security and other protection systems. The greater the amount of data, the better the results, Kitano says, adding that a comprehensive and unified system of health records is needed to get the full benefit of the data. It is anticipated that 100 municipalities will be using SWC-AI in the near future.
Kitano says, “At the individual level, patients could get uniform healthcare wherever they go and AI could create programs for individuals.” But the initial aim of the program is broader in scale: to use the data from, currently, 750,000 people’s information to optimize medical costs and to enable local governments to create evidence-based policies. Kitano and Kuno are seeking to expand their horizons further by collaborating with more businesses both at home and abroad.
Kuno’s vision is not only to use data to show people how they can be healthier and to assist in local government policy-making, but also to make sure no one gets left behind in the digital age. “I want to make everyone in Japan healthy,” he points out. “The challenge is to utilize data in a way that people can see and understand it. If you can do that, more people will be able to live happily into their old age.” With its aging population as a source of scientific knowledge and data, Japan continues to lead the way to a time when living longer, healthier lives will be the norm rather than the exception.
Note: All Japanese names in this advertorial are given in the traditional format, with the family name preceding the given name.
To learn more about Tsukuba Wellness Research (TWR), please click here.
To learn more about NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting, please click here.