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Smart phone apps may offer potential remedy for mild prospective memory loss

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We’ve all been there: the head-slapping moment when you’ve forgotten a birthday or that one vital ingredient in your grocery shop … again!

But for people living with dementia, the increased prevalence of memory lapses such as these can make independent living increasingly difficult.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, however, points to smart phone applications as a potential remedy for mild cases of prospective memory loss.

‘Prospective memory’ refers to the ability to recall an intention to do something, colloquially referred to as ‘remembering to remember’.

It is important in facilitating tasks such as taking medications every day, running errands, calling someone at a specific time – any such function that requires a formed intention to be recalled at a later date.

To test the effect of smart-phone intervention, researchers observed 52 persons living with mild cognitive impairment as they implemented a digital voice recorder or reminder app into their daily routines.

Participants used the apps to record their intentions, with researchers testing their recall through assigned tasks such as calling the laboratory on assigned days, as well as standardised questionnaires and structured interviews.

Researchers also took into account days of phone and app usage, acceptability ratings, quality of life, and independent activities of daily living.

Correlational analyses indicated that greater usage of the digital recorder or reminder app was associated with better prospective memory performance and greater improvements in instrumental activities of daily living (completed by care partners), even when controlling for condition, age, baseline cognitive functioning, and baseline smartphone experience.

Dr Alex Bahar-Fuchs, a clinical neuropsychologist and dementia researcher at the University of Melbourne, tells Aged Care News that this approach is indeed a valuable addition to a clinician’s toolkit, but that a patients’ baseline familiarity with technology must be considered before implementing such an activity.

I think it is very important overall to see studies of this kind which establish the feasibility and acceptability of smart-phone usage to support cognition and function in people with dementia, as these help curb some of the scepticism which is still very pervasive around older people’s capacity to engage with technology.

Dr Alex Bahar-Fuchs

“There are practical challenges in using assistive technologies with people with dementia – particularly if their baseline/background use of smart devices isn’t very strong – given the difficulty learning how to use certain features of the devices effectively.”

“In my practice, I try to use strategies to help patients develop the kind of muscle/motor memory that is required to effectively use certain aspects of the phone that can be quite confusing for people with dementia, for example, a tap vs. a short vs. a long press on the screen, depending on the purpose.”

Dr Alex Bahar-Fuchs, clinical neuropsychologist, says he approves of smartphone based interventions for those with mild prospective memory loss.

Bahar-Fuchs notes that this study strictly applies to prospective memory, and should not be generalised for other forms of memory loss.

“This study only focuses on prospective memory, and not other areas of cognition, so this is more relevant to patients who have difficulty in this type of task.

“Some people have already very strong habits of using digital and non-digital forms of external memory aids in relation to their to-do lists.”

He notes that such research is a valuable tool in challenging the age-based ‘digital divide’.

“I think it is very important overall to see studies of this kind which establish the feasibility and acceptability of smart-phone usage to support cognition and function in people with dementia, as these help curb some of the scepticism which is still very pervasive around older people’s capacity to engage with technology.”

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