Thursday, September 19, 2013

Searching for Solutions to Aging?

I just finished reading Technology Reporter Jane Wakefield's latest piece on the BBC News Web site entitled "Google spin-off Calico to search for answers to ageing." Early in the article she quotes Larry Page saying that Calico would focus on "health and wellbeing, in particular the challenge of ageing and associated diseases." However, as the article proceeded, what emerged was little more than the sense that Google had found yet another nail that could be driven with the hammer of search.

Hopefully, those at both Calico and Google know that, while "health" and "well-being" are related categories, they are still distinct. Health care has now become flooded with computer-based data resources with results that have been both positive and negative. Thus, the same technology that may help a pathologist make a more informed decision as to whether or not the cells collected in a biopsy are carcinogenic can also help an insurance company increase its profit margins, making its shareholders very happy, usually to the detriment of both physicians and patients. More powerful search technology is not going to change this double-edged sword; and, personally, I am not particularly sanguine about its implications for health care for the aged. From a variety of statistical points of view, age is the final liability.

More importantly, then, is this fuzzier concept of "well-being." Well-being is not just a matter of the body. It is just as much a construct of the psychology of the mind embedded in that body and, by extrapolation, of the capacity of that mind for social engagement. Often, the success of an institution created to care for the aged can be assessed in terms of the vibrancy of the social world in that institution, including the dynamics of interaction both among those who reside there and between the residents and the supporting staff. Making such an institution something more than a "waiting room for the inevitable" is no easy matter; and it is hard to believe that a new company born of an older company that has yet to recognize the social dimension of knowledge itself will have much of ongoing value to offer to those who live day-to-day with the physical and mental changes that come with aging.

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