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How Virtual Reality Is Helping Dementia Sufferers Through "Time Travel"

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Rebecca is a bubbly freelance journalist who writes about tech, health and lifestyle.

Dementia Is on the Rise

Dementia is one of the leading causes of disability amongst the elderly generation across the globe. As a disease targeting important neurotransmitters, it can be severely debilitating and massively impact the lifestyle of both the sufferer and the caretaker.

In a recent study by the World Health Organisation, it was found that the number of people suffering from dementia worldwide is steadily rising, with a current estimated 50 million now diagnosed, expected to increase to 75 million by 2030.

The worrying factor is that dementia is only set to increase across an ageing population. As the physical body lives longer in a developed modern-day, we see an increase in elderly neurological disorders as a result.

As displayed by the figures above, numbers of people suffering from dementia are expected to rise by well over 200% in just a matter of years, posing a larger weight on the medical industry, which is yet to have a full cure for the progression of the disease. In fact, studies now show that you are more likely to meet fatality from the onset of dementia than heart disease.

As the number of those suffering continues to develop across a global nation, so does the expert technology that is being designed to aid diagnosis and progression. In recent years, advancements in immersive technology have begun to grace the field of medicine, aiding neurological patients and mental health sufferers. Both tech experts and scientists are now turning towards a digital future for the world of neurological medicine.

As virtual reality continues to improve by the minute, it’s no surprise that it is transforming more than the office or the gaming scene. Read on to find out how this impressive piece of technology is changing the lives of both dementia suffers and their caregivers and how it can truly, take you back in time.

Living With Dementia

Dementia UK defines dementia as a “range of progressive neurological disorders, that is, conditions affecting the brain.” With over 200 subtypes of neurological disease, dementia affects all aspects of a person’s life.

For those suffering from the most common forms of the disease, such as Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia, cognitive abilities are severely affected. As a condition commonly associated with memory loss, those who are diagnosed usually require care as the disease progresses and often regress as it develops.

For those of you interested in the science behind it, experts claim that dementia damages cells in the brain, making it harder for neurotransmitters to send effective messages from the brain to the body. Like other neurological disorders, disruption between neurons can significantly affect a person’s ability to think, speak and function at a normal level.

As a slow and debilitating process that reduces life quality amongst sufferers, modern medicine is constantly evolving to help aid progression and fight the development of dementia.

How Can VR Technology Help Dementia Sufferers?

Virtual reality has become the new hot topic of conversation between medical professionals and tech experts. As the abilities of immersive technology continue to advance, it’s time to see how this impressive piece of tech can transform the diagnosis and progression of neurological disorders such as dementia.

According to recent studies, experts claim that VR can positively impact the cognitive ability of clinical neurological patients, by aiding brain stimulation. In fact, companies such as MindMaze and Oxford VR suggest that simply making use of immersive technology improves memory recalling skills and navigation, aiding a richer quality of life and a reduced rate of progression for many sufferers.

In an interview with Being Patient, a professor from the University of Kent named Dr. Jim Ang told readers that “VR can clearly have positive benefits for patients with dementia, their families, and caregivers”. Dr. Ang's research containing a small study found that not only did VR aid the progression of the disease, but it also reduced aggression and improved the relationship between the sufferer and their carer.

What Is Virtual Reality (VR)?

The question at hand is, what is virtual reality? For those of us who have been hiding under a technology-shaped hole, the clue is in the name. Virtual reality is a type of immersive technology that allows us to experience a platform or universe that doesn’t actually exist.

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As an impressive piece of tech that allows you to view a digitalised world in real-time and interact with its surroundings, it’s no wonder that it is transforming a wide range of fields. From gaming to office practice and now medicine, the possibilities are endless.

Comprised of a clever wearable headset that immerses you in a new 3D world and driven by input tracking that allies you to interact, VR is able to split a display between your line of vision and create a real-time computer-generated experience.

Next to its augmented reality sibling that works to enhance regular eyeglasses designs by prepending digital layers onto the glass for a digitally enhanced reality, the immersive market continues to revolutionise the digital landscape.

Time Travelling Tech

One of the most interesting benefits of using virtual reality in dementia treatment is the ability to take a step into the world of the patient. Research shows that dementia suffers often regress back in time, remembering the ‘old days’ in a clearer form than the present.

VR is able to allow dementia patients to physically time travel back to a familiar environment or timeframe where they feel safe and comfortable, therefore aiding the stimulation of their brains. For example, one study found that recalling buried memories has a positive impact on mental stimulation and also allowed caregivers to learn more about their patient’s past life.

In the study, patients were able to choose an environment to visit, in order to tap into old memories. This engagement proved to improve the mood of patients and even recalling abilities which are important for cognitive function.

VR for Caregivers

One common misconception about the world of dementia is that it only affects those suffering from the condition when in reality, the majority of the negative impacts are often experienced by the carer. Whether it’s a loved one or a patient that the caregiver is trying to understand, VR is a great strategy to use in order to reconnect with that person.

A company called Embodied Labs has been dedicated to creating dementia-specific simulations as a way of educating caregivers and helping them to connect with their loved ones and build empathy for their condition. Using their tech-based platform, they have designed a digital arena that allows family members and caregivers to experience dementia first-hand.

The programme is called The Dima Lab, where those using the VR headset can experience the daily struggles of those with neurological conditions such as Dementia and Huntington’s disease. Mimicking many aspects of their struggles, from confusion to sounds, stimulation and vision problems, carers truly get to see the world through their eyes.

Experts say that this form of VR immersion will improve dementia care in the future, as it encourages car workers to have more empathy for the patients they are dealing with. As the care industry moves forwards, we expect that VR will play a large role in training care staff and medical students.

A Technological Future for the Medical World

The medical field is constantly evolving, thanks to new technological advances hitting the market. For neurological physicians, VR and AR could become key tools in diagnosing and treating dementia and related conditions in the future.

Alongside this, other areas of medicine are beginning to benefit from the introduction of VR. For example, the mental health sector has invested in immersive tech to provide effective exposure therapy for those who suffer from anxiety and PTSD. Augmenting digital situations that the patient fears, reduces avoidance and encourages the patient to work through their fear while within a safe space. VR allows therapists to mock up a computerised version of a person’s unique trauma while being able to control the exposure for a safe outcome.

This new term of ‘wearable wellness’ has only just hit the market, but it’s clear that it’s here to stay. From diving into digital mindfulness, using VR apps, to exposure therapy, medical training and using immersive tools to treat neurological disease. The future of VR is endless, and we can’t wait to see what it transforms next.

References

  • Experience Dementia Through Virtual Reality - Being Patient
    The Dima Lab's virtual reality program allows viewers to experience Lewy body dementia through the eyes of a woman named Dima.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) Definition
    Augmented reality (AR) is the modification of a real-life environment by the addition of sound, visual elements, or other sensory stimuli.
  • Dementia
    WHO fact sheet on dementia providing key facts and information on signs and symptoms, rates, risk factors, social and economic impacts, human rights, WHO response.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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