Medical alert systems are made to alert emergency response services when you have a medical emergency in your home.
As loved ones get older and their health begins to fail, it can be difficult to face the realization that you can’t always be there to help when it’s needed.
A medical alert system can give you peace of mind, and give your loved one a lifeline if they have a fall or a medical emergency and can’t reach help.
Since these systems are worn on your body, it’s far easier to reach help compared to a phone–which might be a long ways from a fall in the shower, for example.
There are a lot of possible options for medical alert systems; we’ve done the research and ranked the ten best.
1. Medical Guardian
Medical Guardian is a medical alert system that goes above and beyond by bolstering the water resistance of their wearable button, integrating their devices with wifi and cellular communication at the same time, including automatic fall detection, and on top of all of that, providing a 1300 foot communication range between the wearable help button and the base unit.
This makes it great for seniors who like to get outside and work in the yard, and who stay fairly mobile in and around the home.
MobileHelp is on the cutting edge of medical alert and monitoring systems for seniors. Their MobileVitals Duo system includes bluetooth-based monitoring of blood pressure, weight, pulse, and blood oxygenation, as well as medication reminders.
It can track your activity levels, too, providing caregivers with information on how well you are maintaining your independence.
If you’re the caregiver for a senior and you want as much health data as possible, MobileHelp is definitely the best option. For seniors trying to set up a medical alert system on their own, the complexity might be overwhelming, though.
QMedic uses advanced wearable technology to track your daily activity habits, your sleep, and can automatically alert a designated caregiver if you start showing signs of disruptions in your sleep and activity habits.
This puts it above many other medical alert systems, because by doing this, it might be able to prevent a medical problem before it happens.
It’s also got an excellent communication range of 1000 feet, so it’s good for yard work and time spent outside of the home too.
4. Bay Alarm Medical
Bay Alarm Medical is widely lauded for its versatility, reliability, and excellent customer service. They offer GPS tracking, making it a good option for seniors who still get out of the house a good bit.
Their devices also boast automatic fall detection capabilities, and this combined with the excellent reliability and mobile network abilities make it the best option for the highly active senior who want a safety net in case something happens inside or outside the home.
ResponseNow has one of the best mobile options on the market. The cellular-network connected mobile device offers 30 days of battery life on a single charge, while the GPS-enabled version has a still-respectable 5 day battery life (mostly due to the extra charge taken by the GPS tracking).
They are pendant based, which does mean you have to wear them around your neck. There is automatic fall detection on the GPS-enabled Belle+ model, but not the basic version with the longer battery life.
LifeStation offers medical alert services in 240 languages, so it’s hard to find a senior who won’t be comfortable using it. It’s also very easy to get a refund, making it a good choice for seniors who are hard of hearing, in case they find they can’t hear the unit from the next room over.
If you find that you can’t hear the voice system very well in your home, it’s not hard to get your money back. GPS tracking and fall detection are both available as a low-cost monthly add-on.
7. One Call Alert
One Call Alert offers both mobile and landline-based options for medical alerts, and it has automatic fall detection available on all of its models.
The range of the wearable help button with the home base unit is a respectable 600 feet–not the best on the market, but still solid for seniors who want an extra layer of security while out in the garage, mowing the lawn, or working in the garden.
8. Life Alert
Life Alert is a long-standing brand in medical alert systems. They are best known for their home-based landline medical alert system, but the company has branched out into GPS-based devices for medical alerts and tracking outside of the home.
Life Alert does not currently offer fall detection, but does have the perk of an impressive 10-year lifetime on the battery in the home units.
GreatCall is a medical alert system that only offers mobile-based medical alert devices that use cellular networks to communicate with emergency service.
It offers fall detection and offers emergency services communications in over 100 languages, making it a good choice for seniors whose first language isn’t English.
The downside is that the battery life of the mobile units is only about 24 hours, which is less than stellar–you have to charge the device every single day.
Alert1 offers a traditional home-based system that uses a wearable pendant to summon help, and the company also offers a mobile system that can detect falls even outside of the home.
However, the flagship mobile unit is also designed to be worn around the neck, and it’s fairly bulky. This could prove to be a problem, as it may be inconvenient to wear on a regular basis.
Who should buy a medical alert system?
Medical alert systems are a great way to achieve peace of mind if you or a loved one may have a medical emergency or a fall when help is not readily available. With a simple bracelet or necklace, a medical alert system can put you in touch with emergency services, and can alert a family member as well.
Thanks to advances in technology, many modern medical alert systems can connect to cell networks and come equipped with GPS, meaning they are also useful for adults who are still living independently and like to get out in the community.
Older systems were tied to the “home base” in your house or apartment, which meant that medical alert systems were really only for seniors who were homebound. Now, they are much more practical for older adults who are healthy and active in the community, but who have family members who worry about their wellbeing and safety.
Older adults with conditions like dementia, heart disease, arthritis, or balance problems are particularly good candidates for a medical alert system, because they could find themselves in need of rapid medical attention, but without the physical means to summon it with (for example) a regular telephone.
Again, thanks to advances in wearable technology, some medical alert systems even come with automatic fall detection, meaning they can summon help on their own if you fall down (they also have an option to cancel the alert, in case you drop the device and trigger the fall detection).
Even for adults who don’t have medical conditions currently, a medical alert system can give their family members the peace of mind to not worry while they go about their daily routines.
Even if you never have to use it, a medical alert system is a great safety net to give you the confidence to live your life without worrying about whether you’d be able to get help if you needed it.
How we ranked
When formulating our rankings, we sought out a range of products that addressed the broad variety of needs that different seniors might have. The biggest distinction among medical alert systems is whether they are mobile based or home based.
A mobile based system is far more versatile; it connects to cellular service networks and typically comes with GPS, meaning it’s possible to go out in the community and still be able to summon help if you need it.
However, mobile based systems come with the downside of significantly worse battery life. In contrast, home based systems have a central base unit in your home, which is connected to a telephone landline. Your medical alert bracelet, necklace, or other device connects wirelessly to this central base unit and can summon help as long as you are in range.
These devices have excellent battery life and are far lighter weight, making them easier to wear. For older adults who don’t leave their home or apartment by themselves anymore, a home based unit can be a far better investment, but we also did not want to discount the advantages of mobile based units.
As such, we included high quality systems of both types in our rankings. For home-based systems, we evaluated products based on the maximum range of the wireless connection, as well as the battery life of the alert button. For mobile based systems, we looked at the coverage of the cell network it was paired with, as well as the battery life.
We also strove to have a balance of systems that had features like remote monitoring and GPS that’s found in the cutting-edge medical alert systems with the simplicity and ease of use that comes with more mainstream products.
An older adult with early stage cognitive decline is likely not going to need these advanced features and would benefit more from a simpler system, but the same is not true for an adult who is healthy and gets out in the community often. Again, we sought to include a balance of systems that were simple and easy to use, and systems that have sophisticated features.
With the systems that offered basic functionality, we assessed reliability and ease of use. We looked at how comfortable the device was to wear, and how easy the button was to press. With the more advanced systems, we looked for perks like automated fall detection, waterproof certifications, and GPS connectivity.
After weighing all of these factors, we came up with our final rankings. Our research team is confident that these are the best medical alert systems available right now.
Medical alert systems can connect you to help immediately. A medical alert system is a wearable device that either connects to emergency services through a home-based unit or directly via a cellular or WiFi network. With the push of a button, you can summon emergency services if you have an accident or a medical emergency. Medical alert systems used to be mostly for seniors confined to the home, because traditional systems were tied to base units connected to landline telephone communications.
But with the advent of widespread cellular network coverage, medical alert systems can be taken anywhere. The best services offer waterproof wearable devices that can summon help whether you are in the shower, on a walk, or at the park.
In-home systems have evolved, too–many offer automatic reminders for medication, as well as advanced sensors that track sleep quality, physical activity levels, and even blood pressure.
Many of these systems can synchronize to online or mobile apps to provide you or your caregivers with detailed health information. The range of the best home-based systems have improved markedly, too: with several companies offering ranges of 1000 feet or more, you can use these medical alert systems when you are out in the yard or working in the garage.
There are two primary types: home-based and mobile-based medical alert systems. The choice of a home-based or a mobile-based medical alert system is dependent on a number of factors, including how mobile you are, where you are likely to have a medical emergency, and what type of information your caregivers need.
For seniors who don’t get out of the house much on their own, a mobile-based service doesn’t make a lot of sense. Mobile based units have worse battery life by a long ways, and home-based systems can track things like physical activity and sleep quality with greater ease, given that battery life doesn’t need to be spent on cellular network communication.
For seniors who do get out of the house, a mobile system may still be too much of a hindrance, and it might make sense to go with a home-based system if you’re accompanied by other people or by caregivers while you are outside of the home.
However, if you really want to maintain your independence, a mobile based system is definitely the way to go. If you enjoy walking your dog, taking a stroll around the neighborhood, or visiting the local park, you shouldn’t let fear (on your part or one of your caregivers) of a medical emergency hinder your freedom.
While mobile systems are bulkier and have shorter battery lives, the amount of independence they offer you is far beyond what you can get with a home-based system.
Seniors at risk for falls and medical emergencies can benefit the most from medical alert systems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans aged 65 and older are susceptible to many causes of death that can be prevented with timely medical intervention (1).
Heart disease and “unintentional injury” are two of the top ten causes of death for Americans 65 and older, and the category of “unintentional injury” is dominated by accidental falls (2). While falling down is no problem when you are young, the same is not true as you get older.
Because bones become more frail as you age, and because your balance deteriorates, falls tend to be much more serious and cause much greater injuries. Falls, heart attacks, and strokes can be particularly problematic because it’s often not possible to summon help, even when the phone is just in the next room.
Getting a medical alert system can be especially beneficial for seniors who are at greater risk for falls. Since falls often cause permanent disability or death, they are a well-researched and fairly well-understood problem.
Research by Laurence Z. Rubenstein at UCLA School of Medicine examined a range of scientific studies to uncover the most important risk factors for falls among seniors (3).
His review of the scientific research identified the most common risk factors as muscular weakness (also known as frailty), unsteadiness while walking, cognitive decline, and some medications that affect alertness and coordination.
A study of seniors living independently in New England led to additional findings on potential risk factors for falls in senior citizens (4).
Over 300 seniors were enrolled in a study by researchers at Yale University and were followed for one year. During that time, 108 of the seniors fell at least once.
By examining the measurements the researchers took at the study’s outset, the researchers were able to determine what factors increased the risk of falling, and by how much.
This study identified medications–specifically sedatives–as the greatest risk factor for falls.
People on sedatives had twenty-eight times the risk of falling compared to people not taking sedatives. Cognitive impairments and lower leg or foot disabilities also increased the risk of falling by 200-500%.
These studies suggest that seniors who are taking sedative medications like barbiturates and sleep aids, as well as those with cognitive impairment, frailty, and lower leg problems would benefit the most from a medical alert system, because they are at a much greater risk of falling compared to seniors who do not have these risk factors.
That’s in addition to the other risk factors that might justify getting a medical alert system, such as a history of heart disease, previous strokes or heart attacks, or seniors who are disabled or cognitively impaired.
Getting lost or disoriented becomes more common and more likely as you get older. Getting lost or disoriented can be a serious problem for older adults, especially if they have medical conditions or physical impairments, like arthritis.
Easily getting lost or disoriented is common in adults with dementia and other degenerative cognitive diseases, but can also occur simply as a result of aging. For a long time, it was thought that easily getting disoriented might be linked to general cognitive decline with age, but new research is showing that a specific mechanism is to blame for specific losses in directional abilities in older adults.
A paper published in the prestigious journal Current Biology in 2018 by a team of researchers in Germany was able to provide direct biological evidence for a deterioration in navigation capabilities associated with age (5).
The scientists used a special kind of MRI to scan specific regions of the brain of younger and older adults who were tasked with performing navigational tasks.
They showed specific age-related deficits in a type of cell called grid cells, named as such because they function like a grid on a map, with cells lighting up to help you know your position in the world. Grid cells also help your brain make an internal map, or representation, of the place you’re in—essentially, where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going.
As you get older, these cells deteriorate, meaning your navigational performance will be worse. While the study cited above didn’t explore degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, it’s likely that cognitive decline affects grid cells to an even greater extent, making getting lost or disoriented more likely.
Why does directional ability matter when it comes to a medical alert system? If your loved one gets lost, or is living independently in the community but has a medical emergency, a GPS-enabled medical alert system can make a huge difference.
With a standard medical alert system, you can be out of luck if you are out of range of the home base unit. But with a medical alert system that features GPS and wireless connectivity (using the same technology that a smartphone uses to connect to cell service), you can get help wherever you are.
Q: How do medical alert systems work?
A: No matter the brand or the type, all medical alert systems are fundamentally tools to put you in touch with emergency services when you need help.
The specifics differ slightly when it comes to home-based or mobile-based systems. A home-based system is connected to the landlines in your house through a base unit. This base unit communicates wirelessly with the wearable alert button, which can be either a wristwatch or a pendant.
These wearable buttons are made so you can even wear them in the shower. If you have a fall or a medical emergency, you can push the button and be connected to emergency services immediately.
The main disadvantage of a home-based system is that the wearable help button doesn’t work once it’s outside the range of the base unit in your home.
A mobile-based medical alert system is not limited by range; it connects directly to cellular networks to connect you to emergency services, so anywhere you’d have cell service, you can get medical help.
Often, these units also incorporate GPS tracking, so emergency services can be directed to your exact location. Mobile-based medical alert services tend to have a much shorter battery life, and the wearable device is usually bulkier and heavier.
Q: How should you choose a medical alert system?
A: When it comes to making a decision on which medical alert system to buy, there are a few key questions to ask. First, is a mobile-based or home-based system the right choice?
Home systems are a good choice for seniors who don’t get outside the house by themselves anymore, because the battery life on their wearable devices is much longer. Some home-based systems offer perks like activity tracking and sleep monitoring.
For seniors who do like to get outside, a mobile-based system is superior. If you are going with a mobile system, you need to check whether the company partners with cell carriers that have service in your area.
Usually, service through one or two major cell providers like AT&T or T-Mobile is available for each medical alert system.
Finally, do you want a simple, foolproof system, or one that offers more features? Many newer devices can track sleep, activity levels, and even display reminders to take medication. These features can be great for some seniors, but overwhelming for others.
Q: What is automatic fall detection?
A: Previously, medical alert systems always required the user to press the “help” button to summon emergency services.
This had a major and obvious drawback: what if you fell and hit your head, or broke your arm and couldn’t reach the help button?
The solution to that problem was to put a sensor inside the wearable help button that can automatically summon help if it detects a fall.
When you fall, the violent collision with the ground creates a rapid deceleration that the sensor can detect. Many of the best brands offer automatic fall detection, which will summon help when you fall.
All medical alert systems with automatic fall detection have a manual shut-off feature to cancel an automatic fall, in case the device goes off accidentally (for example, if you drop it).
Given the clear benefits of fall detection, it should be a standard feature on any medical alert system you’re considering.
Q: Who should wear a medical alert system?
A: While many seniors can benefit from a medical alert system, those who benefit the most are seniors who are at risk of medical emergencies like falls, a heart attack, or a stroke.
A medical alert system is especially helpful when there is a chance you can’t reach a normal telephone if you have an accident or an emergency.
Falls are a classic example of this, but frailty, disability, or being confined to a wheelchair are all additional reasons why someone might not be able to reach help in time, if at all.
A medical alert system can also give peace of mind to your loved ones, even if you are healthy and independent. It can be hard for caregivers to give seniors autonomy when they are worried about their well-being, so getting a medical alert system can be a good way to preserve your independence without giving your loved ones something to worry about.
Q: How long does it take to get help from a medical alert system?
A: According to independent testing, most medical alert systems will connect you to an operator within a minute. The quickest responses can be 20 seconds or less.
Once you are connected, the operator will ask you if you are okay, and if you need help, they will relay your information to emergency responders. From here, the response time varies depending on how close you are to an ambulance or hospital.
Q: Are medical alert systems waterproof?
A: All the best wearable help buttons from top medical alert systems are waterproof and can be worn in the shower. Indeed, they should be worn in the shower, because it’s a common location for falls and accidents.
Falls are so common that even simple interventions such as having grab railings installed are known to reduce the risk of injury from falls, providing further evidence that medical alert systems should be worn in the shower (5).
Q: Are medical alert systems available for people who don’t speak English?
A: Many medical alert systems have arrangements with their call managers to have multilingual assistance available. Some of the best providers have a variety of translators who speak over 100 languages, making it easy to find a medical alert system that can cater to the needs of many different seniors from many different backgrounds.
Q: What kind of medical alert devices are there?
A: Medical alert systems can be divided into two broad categories: mobile based and home based. A mobile based system connects to a cell network, meaning you can call for help anywhere that has cell service.
A home based unit is restricted to just your home, but many seniors do not need assistance elsewhere because they do not leave the house by themselves. As far as the medical alert devices themselves, most come in two forms: a wrist-worn device or a necklace-like device.
Both feature three key components: a wireless transmitter, a battery, and a button to summon help. Whether a necklace or a wristband is better for you depends on your preferences, and the kind of system you have: wrist-worn devices are rare for mobile systems because they need to be bigger and bulkier to connect to wireless networks.
Q: Are medical alert systems covered by Medicare?
A: Medical alert systems are usually not covered by Medicare. While most types of medical equipment are fair game for Medicare reimbursement, there are a few puzzling exceptions.
Medicare does not cover hearing aids or glasses, for example, even though it’s hard to argue that impaired vision or impaired hearing is not a medical condition (indeed, specific medical disciplines even exist to treat them). Unfortunately, medical alert systems fall under the same umbrella. It is usually very difficult, if not impossible, to get Medicare to pay for a medical alert system.
Though this may change in the future—some legislative proposals to change Medicare have explicitly asked for coverage for in-home medical devices like glasses and hearing aids—these changes may be a long ways off. So, it’s better to get a high quality medical alert system now than wait for a long-shot legislative change that would affect Medicare’s coverage of medical alert systems.
Q: Does the AARP have a medical alert system?
A: The AAPR itself does not sell its own medical alert system, but it does provide recommendations and endorsements of specific features of medical alert systems (6). The AARP provides great resources for caregivers and seniors alike who are thinking about getting a medical alert system, and many manufacturers even offer discounts for purchasers who are members of the AARP. When you are buying a medical alert system, it is smart to check to see if they have any special offers or discounts for AAPR members.
Q: How much does a medical alert system like Life Alert cost?
A: Life alert is pretty typical of higher end medical alert systems when it comes to cost. Depending on the exact system you get, the equipment (base unit and the wearable unit) will run you between $100 and $200, while monthly services are about on par with cable TV: $50 to $90, again depending on the specific plan.
As you might expect, equipment with more features and monthly services with more perks will cost more. Regardless of the plan you get, though you can use any level of plan from a service like Life Alert to summon help if you need it.
Q: What are unmonitored medical alert systems?
A: An unmonitored medical alert system is one that summons help directly by calling a pre-set number (almost always 911) if you trigger the alert system. In contrast, a monitored alert system will connect you to a response center that’s staffed by company employees who can help determine your problem.
A monitored alert system can be more useful if you have a gradation of needs—if you might need to get in touch with family members for some problems, your medical doctor for non-urgent needs, or emergency services for urgent needs, a monitored system might be right for you.
In contrast, if you are relying on a medical alert system mostly as a way to summon emergency responders, an unmonitored system will be less expensive.
Q: Do medical alert systems have GPS?
A: Some medical alert systems have GPS, but only if they are mobile-based systems. For obvious reasons, home based systems aren’t equipped with a GPS unit.
Since you can only get a few hundred feet from the home unit while still being in range, a GPS on a home unit wouldn’t do much good.
While mobile-based units are heavier and have a shorter battery life, the fact that they connect to cellular networks and GPS satellites is indispensable if you spend a lot of time outside of the home, particularly by yourself.
Q: What are some good alternatives to medical alert systems?
A: For older adults who are still healthy and mobile, a smartphone or cell phone can be an easy alternative to a medical alert system.
Medical alert systems fill in the gap for older adults who aren’t comfortable using technology, or who have arthritis, cognitive problems, or are prone to falls, a medical alert system is a better fit. Especially when systems come with features like automatic fall detection, a medical alert system has a range of features that aren’t available using an alternative like a cell phone.
A medical alert system is an easy and painless way to get yourself or someone you love an extra safety net for independent living.
The biggest decision to make is whether to go with a home-based system or a mobile system. This decision is going to be dictated by how independent you are and how often you get out of the home by yourself. If you leave the home infrequently and only in the care of others, you’re a good candidate for a home-based system.
However, if you are still fairly independent and like to get outside the house or if you travel frequently, a mobile medical alert system is definitely the right choice.
Seniors who are at risk for heart disease, falls, and other medical emergencies and seniors who live alone are especially good candidates for getting medical alert systems.
Given the peace of mind that they can grant to you or your caregivers, a medical alert system is well worth the investment for many seniors.
For BodyNutrition‘s #1 medical alert system recommendation, click here.