Frailty Index Reveals and Prevents Old Age Ailments

How many hundred million euros could the Finnish state benefit every year if it knew the biological condition of its senior citizens? How much better would our lives be if our health problems could be addressed earlier? The Frailty Index provides an insight into this.

Human ageing is accompanied by many diseases. Individual diseases are not necessarily significant in terms of the well-being and health of the individual, but the combined effect of a number of diseases can be substantial. One way or another, ageing affects us all, and some people’s shape in old age is better as compared to others.

“The Frailty Index is a biological meter for human age that can be used to identify people in a vulnerable state at an early stage. The health data of an individual are retrieved from various electronic health data systems and used to determine his or her Frailty Index with the help of artificial intelligence. The Index can be used to predict people’s mortality, ailments, the need for hospital visits, and the probability of ending up in a nursing home. Even more important is the possibility to use the Index as a preventive measure against various diseases and ailments,” notes Juulia Jylhävä, a Researcher at the University of Tampere. Jylhävä, who has been studying issues related to ageing for years, also works as a Researcher at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.

In 2023, Juulia Jylhävä received a €100,000 Instrufoundation Fellow grant from the Instrumentarium Science Foundation for the development of the Index.

The importance of the format of the data stored in health data systems is emphasized

The frailty syndrome is associated with old age. It is accompanied by progressive diversified physiological and neurological deterioration, which manifests itself in, among other things, weight loss, slowness, exhaustion, muscle weakness, and low physical activity.

“In the United Kingdom, the use of this Index for clinical purposes is already quite advanced. It has been made possible by British health data systems, in which the data are stored in a format suitable for the Index and can be easily combined. In Finland, these data are not available with comparable accuracy or in a structured format. Therefore, to reach a similar outcome, different approaches are required, for example, natural language processing, which is utilised in this project as well. The data important for the index include, among other things, patient-related free-form texts entered into the data systems by doctors, nurses and housekeepers,” Jylhävä says.

Training the artificial intelligence to be smarter

Jylhävä started the development of the Index just over a year ago. In the first stage, it was necessary to get to know the materials available and the possibilities for their use. After all, patient data are sensitive and use of the data involves numerous IT security and legal issues. Experience with conducting analysis of this exact kind was almost unavailable. The possibilities for making use of artificial intelligence also constituted uncharted territory requiring external expertise.

“We are presently training an artificial intelligence model in a secure environment to find data relevant for the Index from the materials in our possession. The objective is to create a technically functional model within a couple of years. The Index makes it possible to find a wide variety of information by combining complex syndromes and to diagnose diseases that might currently go undiscovered. In addition to health care, the Index could also be used extensively for the purposes of research,” Jylhävä says.

The grant by the Instrumentarium Science Foundation gives freedom

The main funder of Jylhävä’s research and development project is the Research Council of Finland. Besides the Instrumentarium Science Foundation, she has received funding from a few other foundations. Jylhävä values the Science Foundation’s grant greatly, for it can be used more freely as compared to many other grants. The use of this grant has not been earmarked for a specific purpose or subject.

“In cases where other researchers are involved in a project, the flexibility of a grant is of special importance. The expenses are very diverse. The funds are used, for example, on the research group’s affairs, trips to conventions, and my own salary. After all, the researchers have to be able to buy food and live their lives,” Jylhävä reminds.

Jylhävä’s colleagues are often not familiar with the grants distributed by the Instrumentarium Science Foundation. Some researchers also incorrectly believe that the Foundation only finances projects related to technical equipment. In reality, grants are awarded over a very broad spectrum to projects related to medicine and medical technology, but also to medicine-related natural science and economics projects.

Text: Kai Tarkka / Viestintäpalvelu Taika Oy
Photo: Juulia Jylhävä

Instrumentariumin tiedesäätiö 5.10.2023