An overseas Alzheimer’s disease research project using smartphones would be a welcome addition to New Zealand’s dementia care.
GameChanger is a project developed in the United Kingdom to gather data for Alzheimer’s research through short and frequent games on a smartphone app.
Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia affecting about 45,000 people in New Zealand.
Alzheimer’s New Zealand chief executive Catherine Hall said there is a lot of research being done around the world to understand dementia and something like this is a welcome addition.
“Dementia is one of New Zealand’s and the world’s most challenging, growing and difficult health conditions.
“There is no cure and no treatment…it’s one that we don’t know a huge amount about.”
GameChanger is still in the early stages but if it could help people get a better understanding of dementia then it would be wonderful, she said.
However, the critical issue for New Zealand is that there is not enough support for people currently with dementia.
“These people are the most vulnerable in New Zealand, they’re not getting the support they need and they are being let down by the system.”
Most people who are living with dementia live at home and there are very few options to support these people, she said.
This will continue to get worse as New Zealand’s aging population increases.
“These services are underfunded with inadequate resources.
“What we would like to see is the government stepping up and distributing resources.”
The Ministry of Health launched the New Zealand Framework for Dementia Care (2013) (https://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/new-zealand-framework-for-dementia-care-nov13.pdf) which is something Hall said she would like to see fully implemented as it is based on international guidelines and enables New Zealand to meet its obligations unde the United Nations and World Health Organisation.
Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa said the government is committed to supporting people living with dementia and their family and carers.
“I understand that district health boards are making steady progress developing and implementing the key elements of the [New Zealand Framework for Dementia Care].
“I also understand the New Zealand dementia sector’s desire for more rapid progress on implementing the framework.
“Like all areas of health, additional action and resourcing for this sector needs to be considered alongside all other health priorities, of which there are many.”
Ministry of Health manager of healthy ageing Jim Nicolson said the framework sets an agreed, overarching direction for dementia diagnosis, care and support.
District Health Boards are making steady progress with implementation, including providing training and resources within primary care to improve early diagnosis, developing guidance to ensure greater consistency and quality of education provided to family and whānau carers and looking at ways to support people with dementia and their carers through improved navigation.
The ministry acknowledges the use of smartphone apps to track health and wellbeing, he said.
“It is encouraging to see researchers looking at innovative ways to diagnose diseases, such as dementia.
“Apps, like the one developed as part of the GameChanger study, could potentially provide GPs and other diagnosing health professionals with greater insight and information.”
GameChanger is a project which enables research at a larger scale than usual.
In an email sent to participants of the research, University of Oxford postdoctoral researcher, Dr Claire Lancaster, who helped design the games involved in GameChanger, said because the research is done through an app it allows the team to gather huge amounts of information quicker than traditional health research methods.
“To prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, we need to be able to diagnose people in the very earliest stages of the disease – the first changes in the brain occur more than a decade before someone visits their doctor.”
The Mezurio app was developed as a way to detect very small changes in thinking abilities to test for the first signs of the disease instead of using brain scans or spinal fluid samples which are not practical in healthy people.
“Before we can use Mezurio to spot people with the very earliest signs of dementia, we need to understand how the healthy brain changes as we get older. That is where GameChanger comes in.”
Thousands of people have already been involved in the research by completing short games through the app to enable to team to capture how cognition changes over time.
According to Alzheimer’s New Zealand the number of Kiwis with dementia (almost 70,000) is expected to nearly triple by 2050.