How Virtual Games can Improve Alzheimer’s Detection and Support Those…
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Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are often tricky to diagnosis. If only there was a simple, fast, reliable test that could tell us whether you or someone you love one has dementia or not, we could concentrate on caring for the person. However, as of today, physicians use a variety of tools – from studying a medical history to lab tests, exams and observations – to perform a dementia diagnosis.

Recently, a surprising new approach is emerging that can help medical professionals diagnose dementia while supporting people with Alzheimer’s and other memory-related maladies.

Diagnosing Dementia: No Time to Play Games?

The video game industry generates billions of dollars in revenues and entertains countless game enthusiasts around the world. Now, researchers are reporting that the Sea Hero Quest video game can spot early Alzheimer’s more effectively than standard medical testing.

Performed by researchers in the UK, the study looked at how players fared on the Sea Hero Quest app.

Sea Hero Quest is based on spatial navigation and is designed to be played on cell phones. Created by researchers in the United Kingdom, the game challenges gamers to navigate a watercraft through a number of nautical mazes. Scientists developed the study based on the observation that people with dementia may find spatial navigation more challenging.

It turns out that gamers with a high genetic risk for Alzheimer’s played the game differently than people who aren’t at high risk. They tended to be less efficient when making their way through the maze. More exciting still, this tendency was present among participants who had not shown any other issues with their memories! Who would have thought that playing a video game could act as an early warning system for dementia down the line?

New Possibilities for Helping People with Dementia

The Sea Hero Quest study opens up new avenues for developing personalized approaches to diagnosis and treatment protocols for Alzheimer’s patients. After analyzing a huge pool of participants, scientists focused on some 27,000 players aged 50 to 75. They were able to identify a worldwide standard revealing how the majority of gamers play the game.

Researchers then performed a side-by-side comparison of these results with a study undertaken in a laboratory environment. There were 60 participants. Thirty-one had APOE4 – the gene that enhances the risk of Alzheimer’s. The other 29 didn’t have the gene. The second study confirmed a disparity between those in the risk category versus the non-risk group.

The bottom line? Studying navigation will provide valuable information in addition to standard tests of memory and cognition, creating a real possibility for earlier diagnosis than has been possible until now.

Memory Games for Alzheimer’s Patients

Coping with the challenges of dementia can be trying for patients as well as their caregivers. A recent graduate with an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Gabriela Gomes, developed Healing Spaces – a multisensory experience for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Developed as a Masters’ program thesis, Gomes’ Healing Spaces helps people with dementia to relax and connect. Healing Spaces uses an iPad, tv, lights, speakers and a sensory box. The caregiver chooses a beach scene or forest scene. Healing Spaces then immerses the user in the scene using sight, sound, smell and touch. The beachside experience includes real sand or lotion with the aroma of sunscreen. A caregiver might rub lotion on the patient’s hands. The forest scene involves aromatherapy that makes the smell of pine trees waft through the air.

Sensory Activities that Stimulate Memory while Soothing the Senses

Gabriela Gomes wants to help adults with cognitive challenges relax in a pleasant, nonverbal way. Gomes interned for the Front Porch Center, a California operator of retirement communities. Healing Spaces was tested in a memory care setting at a community in Pasadena. In addition to seeing how patients would respond, the goal was to discover if caregivers would embrace the technique.

Healing Spaces passed with flying colors. Caregivers reported that the setup was simple. Project Coordinator Megan Park observed what happened when a caregiver massaged the hands of one of the residents with the beach lotion. Upon smelling the lotion, she opened her eyes and began relaxing. As Park put it, “Once the first resident came in for the first session, we were just completely blown away.”

In addition to its potential to reduce the anxiety and agitation associated with Alzheimer’s, Healing Spaces may benefit the caregiver, too. Family members who look after their loved ones can experience relaxation together as they go through the simulation.

Reminiscence Therapy and Virtual Reality

How can technology support those already diagnosed? Before we share a quick list of useful apps, let’s touch on two powerful and promising arenas: reminiscence therapy and virtual reality (VR).

For many people dealing with dementia, a journey through the past may help them cope with the present. Reminiscence therapy stirs up memories from decades past – assisting people in remembering their personal story. My House of Memories, for instance, harnesses a series of images that awaken long-term memory. The app lets users browse more than 100 pages of photos.

While Healing Spaces includes elements of virtual reality, researchers are beginning to explore the potential for full-immersion Virtual Reality (VR). A pilot study from the University of Kent in the UK showed clear benefits for dementia patients and their caregivers. Participants in the study wore a VR headset and experienced virtual environments ranging from a cathedral, to a countryside scene, to a rocky beach. The researchers observed that these virtual worlds boosted memory recall while relieving agitation from dementia and enhancing interactions with caregivers.

Apps to Remember for Your Loved One with Dementia

There are dozens of apps that might improve quality of life for dementia patients and the people who love and care for them. Here are just a few:

  • My Reef 3D. Best for advanced dementia. Users engage with a variety of virtual fish.
  • Game Show. A memory aid that might be particularly helpful for early-stage dementia.
  • Talk Tom Cat 2. Participants talk to Tom Cat – and he talks back! Users can even brush the cat’s hair and pet him with smart devices that have a tactile touchscreen.
  • Timeless. Helps users recall events and keep up with loved ones. It even helps Alzheimer’s patients remember names and faces.

Getting People with Alzheimer’s into the Game

While diagnosing dementia can be difficult and we are still seeking a cure, virtual games for seniors can improve Alzheimer’s detection as well as quality of life for those who are diagnosed. For Alzheimer’s patients and the people who cherish them, it’s game on!


What is dementia?

This video game can detect early stages of Alzheimer's better than medical tests, researchers say.

A video game aids in research on Alzheimer's disease

A game like no other: Healing Spaces targets Alzheimer’s, dementia patients

New app uses nostalgic images to trigger memories for dementia patients

Virtual Reality Helps Dementia Patients Recall Memories, Study Says

8 Great Apps for Dementia and Alzheimer's Patients and Their Families

About the Author(s)

With over 20 years of experience writing for leading healthcare providers, Rob is passionate about bringing awareness to the issues surrounding our aging society. As a former caretaker for his parents and his aunt, Rob understands first-hand the experiences and challenges of caring for an aging loved. Long an advocate for caregiver self-care, his favorite activities include walking on the beach, hiking in the coastal hills of Southern California and listening to music.

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