July 12, 2024

As technology advances, so does evidence that effectively using it can help people cope with the impact of cognitive decline—and even help prevent it. Michael K. Scullin, PhD, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, helped develop a behavioral randomized controlled trial to train people between 55 to 92 years old with mild dementia to use smartphones.

The researchers focused on helping participants set recurring appointment reminders as a way to improve quality of life. “People affected by dementia often have a challenge with prospective memory, or the ability to remember to do things in the future,” Scullin said. In his study, care partners—such as the participant’s spouse, adult child, younger relative, or hired nurse—reported that participants with cognitive decline had improved independent functioning across a month timespan (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Vol. 70, 2022).

Scullin’s team recently received funding for a Phase 2 trial of 200 participants over 6 months. Half of the participants are from digitally disadvantaged backgrounds, such as rural areas without internet access or homes without computers. “We want to know how to use these devices in a way that’s most effective at preserving daily functioning and overall health in individuals living with diseases,” said Scullin.

While Scullin’s work focuses on improving quality of life in those with impaired cognition, he theorizes using digital devices can also be a protective factor in cognitive health, contributing to a cognitive reserve in aging people—the more mentally active someone is, the more likely their cognitive abilities will be preserved (Wolff, J. L, et al., Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Vol. 69, No. 7, 2021). Technology also encourages social connection, which can promote better cognition, and provides ways to better cope with daily difficulties, such as forgetting about appointments or medication.

Andrew Kiselica, PhD, assistant professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri, also studies smartphone use among aging people with cognitive impairment. He received a career development award from the National Institute on Aging to develop an intervention that helps patients and their caregivers access affordable technology and implement individualized technology-based solutions to reach care goals. To do so, the intervention includes occupational therapy strategies to help people choose, set up, and troubleshoot their technologies. In this way, caretakers can choose the technologies that best work for them. For example, caretakers might use a shared calendar with their loved ones to remind them of appointments, lightening their own caregiving load. The intervention can be delivered by any master’s-level behavioral or occupational health provider.

Kiselica is seeking funding for a feasibility trial to take place through the broader University of Missouri health system. He’s also working on a pilot study with collaborators from the University of Missouri Extension’s health and wellness program for older adults involving a tech-focused intervention that helps people glean cognitive benefits from smart technologies before they develop symptoms of cognitive impairment.


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