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How Health Technology Can Help People with Alzheimer’s Disease

December 12, 2014

Every 67 seconds, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

More than 5 million Americans are now living with this disease, creating a huge challenge for caregivers to keep them safe and continually engaged.

But recent innovations can help with this. From wearable devices to remote caregiving services online, there are several ways in which new technologies can help people with Alzheimer’s manage cognitive challenges and live as independently as possible.

Here are some examples:

Sensor Technology and Wearables

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, last year more than 15.5 million caregivers provided close to $18 billion worth of unpaid care to loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s. That figure is huge, but it doesn’t begin to capture the daily challenges and time required to take care of someone with this condition. Caregiving is a full-time job, but sometimes caregivers cannot be there around the clock. Family members who live far away also may rely on paid caregivers or nurses to assist with their loved ones’ care.

Technology can complement these efforts. Smart pills containing ingestible sensors can provide caregivers with data about when someone with Alzheimer’s has taken their medication. The tool is typically part of technology system that can alert and issue reminders to someone when they forget to perform a routine health task.

In addition to smart pills, smart home sensors also can help those with Alzheimer’s continue to live safely in their homes. They can be embedded in wearable devices like a keychain or wristwatch to track a senior’s activity and notify caregivers if a person has left home for an extended period of time. Motion sensors in the kitchen and bedroom can give caregivers information about a senior’s eating habits and sleep activity, giving them peace of mind about what is happening when they are at work or away fulfilling other family obligations.

One of the greatest challenges with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is the cognitive changes they cause. People can become more forgetful, can wander off, not remember to take medications or forget to turn off appliances such as the stove. For those who live alone, all of these instances could potentially be harmful. While in-person care is always optimal, technology can help to lengthen the amount of time people with Alzheimer’s can live independently—and safely.

Connective Tools & Virtual Companions

Technology also can help people with Alzheimer’s stay connected and engaged. Many studies have shown that people who have regular social interactions can maintain their brain vitality. While community activities help increase engagement, technology can mimic these social interactions in a virtual environment, especially for people with Alzheimer’s and other ailments who may have limited mobility.

There are several tablet applications and online tools that connect people with Alzheimer’s to family members and friends who don’t live nearby. Similar to Skype, these services specialize in maintaining human-to-human connection via video chat and allow caregivers to share photos and notes virtually with their loved one.

There also are cognitive training applications on smart tablets that can help someone with Alzheimer’s strengthen their brain muscles and increase what scientists refer to as “neuroplasticity,”  or the ability of the brain to become more productive and active. Online games and puzzles are just some examples, as are apps that allow those with Alzheimer’s to participate in a favorite pastime in a virtual environment, such as flower gardening. All these tools have been designed with ease of use in mind, so even elderly people or those with cognitive challenges who may not be tech savvy can easily operate these devices.

Virtual care companions also can help people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia engage in meaningful social interactions. Some services provide care via avatars—or human-like virtual characters—which are voiced by trained remote caregivers who talk to the person about their day, their favorite hobbies and reinforce positive memories of their family and friends. Though these services cannot replace traditional caregiving, they can help ease the challenges for many family caregivers who struggle to provide around-the-clock care.

Alzheimer’s disease is difficult for those who are diagnosed and for family members who provide care. Technological innovations  can complement more traditional care options and help affected individuals live independently and maintain their cognitive abilities for as long as possible. Though there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, these new developments provide more options for how we can manage and treat this disease and give many of us more hope about the advancements that could await in the future.