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Mobile Health App Helps Seniors Reduce Their Risk For Dementia

An mHealth app used in a University of South Florida study helped seniors reduce their chances of developing dementia by almost 30 percent over a decade.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- An mHealth application designed to help seniors “train their brain” lowered their chances of developing dementia by almost 30 percent over a decade.

That’s the takeaway from a study, published on Nov. 16 in Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions. And according to experts, it’s the first evidence of an mHealth app having a measurable impact on cognitive impairment.

"[T}his is the first time a cognitive training intervention has been shown to protect against cognitive impairment or dementia in a large, randomized, controlled trial," Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operations with the Alzheimer’s Association, told CBS News.

Roughly 14 percent of seniors older than 71 and 30 percent of those over 90 experience dementia – a global population of 34.4 million people, according to a 2010 study, with a healthcare price tag in formal and informal costs of $422 billion. According to Alzheimer’s researchers, interventions that delay the onset of dementia by at least two years could cut the number of cases worldwide by one-fifth in 30 years.

Mobile health applications that use gaming technology have received slow but steady interest among healthcare providers in areas that include public health outreach, care management and staff education and training. The attraction – and the challenge – lies in developing apps that are enjoyable, thus increasing engagement, while also improving outcomes.

In this case, the mHealth app is designed to engage the senior in an activity that will improve his or her quality of life down the road.

"Everyone with a brain is at risk of dementia," Jerri D. Edwards, of USF’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and the study’s lead author, told CBS News. "[T]his is the first treatment ever shown in a clinical trial to make a difference."

"It is important to understand that this intervention is not a game, that it's not just doing something on the computer," Edwards added. "It's a very specific training program that shows these benefits."

In the Advanced Training in Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by researchers at the University of South Florida, some 2,800 dementia-free seniors, all 65 or older, were split into four groups, including one control group. The other three groups were tasked with playing different types of brain training exercises in at least 10 sessions over six weeks.

One group played BrainHQ, an online program designed by Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Dan Roenker of Western Kentucky University that challenges seniors to identify objects accurately and quickly. The objects become more similar and appear more quickly as the game progresses, pushing the senior to develop their speed-of-thought processing skills.

According to the study, that training correlates to a 29 percent decrease in dementia risk over a decade, compared to seniors who don’t practice any memory or reason training at all. And each continued training session helped to lower those percentages further.

While the study showed that speed training helps reduce the onset of dementia, the same can’t be said for memory or reason training.

“Speed training is distinct from memory and reasoning training as a perceptual/cognitive technique aimed at enhancing basic information processing efficiency with implicit learning mechanisms,” the study reported. “In contrast, the memory and reasoning training arms are strategy-based and operate through explicit memory systems. Older adults at higher risk for dementia due to older age, low education, or mild cognitive impairment are actually more likely to benefit from speed training.”

Edwards and her colleagues pointed out that speed-training apps can help seniors in a number of different ways, including “enhanced quality of life, lower risk of depression and improved physical function.”

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