Digital Health Technologies for Alzheimer’s Disease


The statistics related to Alzheimer’s disease (Ad) are astonishing. According to The Alzheimer’s Association there are over 5 million Americans with Ad. It is the sixth leading cause of death. More than 15 million caregivers provided an estimated 18.1 billion hours of unpaid care at a value of approximately $221.3B. The impact of this disease is also well-illustrated in a recent  PBS documentary.  While it might seem incongruous on the surface to discuss digital technology and a population with significant cognitive challenges, I will illustrate how it can be beneficial at different stages of the disease’s course.

Cognitive Assessment Tools.  Most tools for assessing cognitive abilities have been of the traditional written form, as offered by the Alzheimer’s Association.  The ability of digital tools to detect early diagnosis of Ad is important in medical and social planning for the patient and family. Some have taken traditional diagnostic tools and transformed them into a digital platform. Such is the case with Quest Diagnostics’ CogniSense.  A more transformational approach is one seen with utilization of the Anoto Pen which can measure the writing instrument’s position up to 80 times per second. An exciting study by the Lahey Medical Center and MIT’s Computational Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory looked at using the Anoto Pen versus traditional cognitive assessment tools for Ad and other diseases. This method has already shown advantages over traditional tools, described in an MIT News piece: “… while healthy adults spend more time on the dCDT [digital clock drawing test via Anoto] thinking (with the pen off the paper) than “inking,” memory-impaired subjects spend even more time than that thinking rather than inking. Parkinson’s subjects, meanwhile, took longer to draw clocks that tended to be smaller, suggesting that they are working harder, but producing less — an insight not detectable with previous analysis systems…”  A digital platform called Neurotrack claims it has the ability to detect Ad at its earliest stages by assessing recognition memory, a function specific to the brain’s hippocampal region which is affected early in the course of Ad. Digital assessment tools like these can also save clinician time and offer a better objective patient assessment.

Cognitive Improvement tools. A handful of small studies have shown that ‘brain exercise’ in the form of cognitive augmentation games decreases the risk in normal individuals of getting Ad. One would naturally ask if this carries over to those already diagnosed AD. Some earlier studies suggested this was the case. An older review of multiple small studies showed that while they suggest that brain exercises slowed progression of cognitive decay they did not affect mood or the ability to care for oneself.  It is worthy of noting that patients with larger baseline ‘cognitive reserve’ do better to a point then characteristically have a rapidly progressive course. In a previous post I discussed the merits of music as an ideal digital health tool. Music should be considered as a potentially much appreciated and useful tool.  Relative to Ad specifically, I would reference the incredibly informative and moving award-winning film Alive Inside, documenting the response of patients with severe Ad to music relevant to their personal past. An intriguing interactive game/tool is Tovertafel, a Dutch technology which projects via suspended box visuals onto a table.  There are various exercises and games on the platform which are both enjoyable and mentally stimulating. Less sophisticated yet popular games are offered by the Alzheimer’s Association.

Tools for monitoring daily activities. Technologies have been developed to aid patients with mild to moderate disease and their caregivers to make daily activities easier and safer. SmartSole makes an innersole with a GPS locator with an associated smartphone app and call service for alerts. Silver Mother by Sen.se is a customizable digital tech platform (front door position, room temperature, and water and food containers) connecting caregivers with love ones’ activities of daily living.  For patients with early dementia or for caretakers to connect with loved ones at a distance, grandCARE is a very comprehensive platform and service.

While one might associate digital tools with those of us who are “connected,” their utility in the realm of Ad can be profound.  I would submit that the potential for digital tech to prolong independence and/or improve lives of caregivers in the home or at a distance must be the subject of clinical studies.  Public health policy might very well change as a result of such outcome studies.

As a disclaimer I am not associated with any technology or organization mentioned in this post.

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About davidleescher

David Lee Scher, MD is Founder and Director at DLS HEALTHCARE CONSULTING, LLC, which specializes in advising digital health technology companies, their partners, investors, and clients. As a cardiac electrophysiologist and pioneer adopter of remote patient monitoring, he understood early on the challenges that the culture and landscape of healthcare present to the development and adoption of digital technologies. He is a well-respected thought leader in mobile and other digital health technologies. Scher lectures worldwide on relevant industry topics including the role of tech in Pharma, patient advocacy, standards for development and adoption, and impact on patients and healthcare systems from clinical, risk management, operational and marketing standpoints. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State College of Medicine.
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