Eating enough vegetables and exercising: no one will deny that a proactive attitude improves health. Yet it is not always easy to make the right choices. For what diseases are you susceptible and how do you adapt your life accordingly? Groningen-based start-up Ancora Health in the Netherlands uses clinical data and behavioral trackers to accurately measure your health.
In our information society, there is no shortage of data about the human body and behavior. By making smart use of that data, ailments and diseases can be detected. Based on individual needs, lifestyle can be adjusted. This is an approach to health at the preventive level, something that is often missing in the current health care system, according to founder of Ancora Health Sridhar Kumaraswamy. So he founded Ancora Health three years ago, together with his colleagues. Based on physical examinations, questionnaires and a DNA profile, they perform data analysis and a personal health report is created based on scientifically supported data.
“General health care is incredibly skilled at treating chronic diseases and people are living much longer as a result,” says Kumaraswamy. “But it is just as important, in addition to living a long life, to live a healthy one. Just by looking at how much money goes out to chronically ill patients, you can see that something needs to be done. By combining technology and data with personally tailored advice, we ensure that people effectively adjust their lifestyle and improve both their physical and mental health.”
The start-up focuses primarily on employees. This year they conducted a pilot in the Sint Anna Hospital in Eindhoven. A personal action plan was launched at the hospital with 50 employees. Ancora also conducted a pilot at Mediq, a company that supplies pharmaceutical products and medical supplies.
Clinical data and behavioral apps
Ancora relies on two different types of data. “First, we look at clinical information. For example, think about medical history information. We also collect behavioral data through wearables and nutrition apps. Then our algorithms integrate all this information to get a more detailed picture of a person’s health. This way, we know where the risks are for each individual: should sensitivity to hypertension be taken into account? Or should we focus on preventing diabetes?”
In one of the programs offered, a comprehensive risk analysis is done with regard to genetics. This is one of the reasons Ancora stands out from similar companies. This analysis is carried out on the basis of a so-called “Polygenic Risk Score” method. Kumaraswamy explains: “This analysis sums up the risks for a specific condition based on all relevant changes in your genetic makeup. Not just based on a few relevant changes, but all changes. For example, if you look at the risk of hypertension, there are as many as 100,000 relevant changes in the genetic makeup. We make calculations based on this information to get a good idea of the risks an individual faces.”
“What our scientists have seen so far is that genetic risks matter much more when people have unhealthy lifestyles. In other words, healthy habits can offset genetic predisposition.”
Finally, based on the data collected, a lifestyle plan is created. Healthy eating, getting enough sleep and controlling stress levels are all part of it. “We broke these goals down again into more than 100 microhabits that break down a larger health behavioral goal, such as “eat healthy,” into smaller and practical actions that one can perform in daily life. For example, consider avoiding added sugars or eating smaller portions. It is important to set achievable goals to reduce anxiety or loss of motivation. That way, we tailor the plan to the person’s motivation and skill and it works better.”
Fear of illness
Tracking your health provides many new insights, but can it go too far? “Of course there will always be people walking around with hypochondria, or fear of illness, who will go to great lengths to monitor their health. The Internet and the various devices and apps have only reinforced this,” Kumaraswamy admits. “But this disorder has been around a lot longer than today. It’s not like data is causing that disorder.” For others, on the other hand, data is an enemy: “There are also people who say that you should let sleeping dogs lie. In other words, the less they know about their health, the less seems to be wrong. After all, measurements can show that something is wrong.”
Ultimately, however, it is the responsibility of scientists, engineers, medical staff and start-ups to collectively address the challenge of chronic disease. Above all, we must realize that data gives us power over our health, Kumaraswamy believes. “In a society where so many people are systematically chronically ill, this is very important. I think in the future, we will be more and more grateful to use technology to check our health preventively.”
Read other stories about Groningen here