Is Technology Making Us Fat?

As we look back over the past year and some of the amazing medical breakthroughs like wearable robotic devices, genomic sequencing and treatments like renal denervation that are improving people’s lives, it bears reflection on what else we could be doing better. Our world has changed more in the past century than in thousands of years of human history. We not only know more about our biology than ever before, but science and technology are unlocking the secrets of the very building blocks of our health. Somehow, in the midst of this incredible innovation, we’ve gotten fat, and not just a little. The result? Alarming rates of obesity and related chronic disease that threaten to crush us physically and financially.

But is it technology’s fault that we’ve become fat? A recent study by the Milken Institute that tied the amount an industrialized country spends on information and communication technologies directly to the obesity rates of its populations thinks so.

Most of us are guilty of a little overindulgence around the holidays but for many, overindulgence is a normal way of life. As economies transition to more sedentary, the physical movement that burned calories and kept us fit simply does not occur. Our lifestyles compound the issue — dual-income homes rely on the convenience of packaged meals, and our leisure activities have shifted to heavy “screen time” with movies, games and social media.

Consider that more than 200 million men and 300 million women worldwide are obese — roughly equivalent to the combined populations of the United States, Mexico and Canada, or of all of the European Union countries. Even more alarming, obesity is growing fastest in countries that have traditionally not had such issues. According to the report: “In Japan, obesity spiked 77 percent over a 19-year period,” and China’s obesity rate more than doubled in just six years. And the number of bariatric surgery procedures in Asia increased 449 percent over the last five years.

In addition to obesity-related diseases like diabetes, stroke and heart disease being among the leading causes of death, the price of obesity extends well beyond direct health-care costs. The Milken Institute study estimates that reducing obesity rates would also increase productivity driving economic growth: “If the country (U.S.) could reverse the growth rate of obesity and return to 1998 levels in 2023, then this would translate to a reduction in health-care spending of $60 billion and an increase in productivity of $254 billion.”

Aside from the costs, demographic demand of an aging global population means we simply don’t have enough medical professionals to care for as many sick people as we will have if obesity rates continue to rise as predicted. According to a new study, “The Global Burden on Disease,” recently published in The Lancet, life expectancy around the world has risen by 11 years for men and 12 years for women since 1970. Though, while people are living longer, they are spending more years living with injury and illness. We have to acknowledge more people who are sick and fewer people to treat them.

We need to stop treating the “symptoms” of obesity and start treating the cause.

But technology is not the problem, it’s the solution.

Collectively, we as individuals, as patients, as caregivers and as members of our communities must live up to our responsibility to be active participants in our own health. The technology needed to do this is widely available right now. Across the globe, hospitals and physicians using electronic medical records are knitting together ecosystems of mobile devices from tablets to phones that help clinicians capture, communicate, and collaborate via the cloud. In doing so, doctors, patients with personal health records and health-care organizations can safely share medical information to make better-informed decisions. This interactive approach to care is driving a change in the traditional relationship between doctor and patient, one that is ultimately more effective in changing patient behavior.

But more can be done. Apps that help monitor health conditions like the Digital Health Scorecard, treatments and medications, and apps that track fitness and connect with others to share information, also empower people to become more aware and in control of their health choices

Add business intelligence technologies into the mix, which enable health providers and governments to identify and respond to obesity-related trends in their communities as well as harness real clinical data to develop new treatments and interventions.

In 2013, let’s make a list of resolutions that will benefit us all. This is not about forgoing your love of gaming, or spending less time online. It is about using the technology now integral to all our lives in smarter ways.

  1. Become an active participant in your own health care and start a personal health record for you and your family. Tracking health changes is especially important for obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease because of the progressive damage that they cause. Having specific information about past treatment helps you better consult with your physician on the most appropriate treatment plan to start feeling better.
  2. Convert latent screen time to active screen time — check out the 60 Million Minutes Challenge, a season-long campaign with the NFL PLAY 60 that encourages kids to get 60 minutes of physical activity daily.
  3. Download a health app today — there are thousands of apps for everything from counting steps to counting calories or tracking your activity levels, food consumption or heart rate. It is easier than you think.

We have the power to make our future healthier, but it takes action. And the only way to stop the tide of obesity is to make the patient part of the cure. As you look to your own list of resolutions this year, consider taking that first step to using technology to take control of your health and gaining a better quality of life.

Neil Jordan is the General Manager for Worldwide Health at Microsoft. This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

8 replies »

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  2. I agree that technology can hinder a persons need for physical fitness. In today society the majority of people have access to a smartphone or a desktop to surf the net. This along with Facebook and other online sites can keep people glued to the screen for hours. I also think that fitness apps can be useful for people in encouraging them to be physically active

  3. I would like to say, your discussion about personal health improvement is really beneficial for the people. People may follow the rules by reading your given information.

  4. Great article. It’s apparent that the obesity rate has increase and doesn’t seem to be taking a turn for the better. Hopefully people will be more aware of their food choices. It’s definitely and epidemic. Thank you for posting!

  5. Nice post.

    It would be easy to dismiss your comments about personal health records as more of the same from a big company that just happens to have a product that does the thing we’re talking about.. but I think you actually may have something here.

    I’ve done some thinking about how you get people to engage with their personal health record and what can be done with them. To date, the average user has viewed PHRs with about the same enthusiasm as their IRS tax forms or doing long term financial planning – a task to be feared, dreaded, avoided, possibly of use at some vague undefined point in the future, but not a priority at the top of the list …

    I think the key is to change the way we frame the conversation – make the PHR a lot more personal and a lot less about the record – integrate my PHR with my iPhone, with my PS3 (forgive me – my Xbox, I mean), my gym membership and my trip to my doctors office.

    I’d like to see more of your thinking on how this can happen –

  6. This may sound ironic but it isn’t: how about an iPhone/computer charger that runs off a bicycle or a treadmill and you have to go for an hour to charge it fully?