Can tech help Alzheimer’s sufferers?

Originally published December 17, 2016

By Ian Sherr

My mother was a brilliant woman. She earned three bachelor’s degrees and a master’s, and could have become a doctor if not for the rampant sexism she faced in college in the early ’60s.

Instead, she worked for a major airline, where she applied her math smarts calculating a cargo load’s weight and balance that would allow a plane to safely take off.

But after spending nearly a decade working the overnight shift, she was starting to get absent-minded. At first it was little things, like she’d go somewhere without the documents she needed. Then it was big things. Then she got in a car accident.

My mother was shocked when she came out of the doctor’s office after weeks of testing. She was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. At 57 years old.

My mother was told to do anything that required thinking. She did crosswords. She read books. And since she was already good at math, she calculated the value of her invested retirement nest egg against the stock market’s moves.

If she were alive today, she probably would type Alzheimer’s into an app store. The first hit is an Alzheimer’s patient-care app called MindMate, which includes interactive brain games it claims will “stimulate user’s cognitive abilities based on world-leading research.” There are dozens more.

Over the past few years, there’s been an explosion of apps and websites promising to solve what medical science hasn’t. Many claim they’ll improve the brain, or even help fend off the disease. Experts say nearly all are peddling false hope to people who have just been told they’re going to lose their minds. There’s no scientific proof any of these apps do what they claim. But since more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s there’s big demand for a fix.

“People are willing to try anything when they’re desperate,” says Creighton Phelps, a deputy director at the National Institute on Aging.

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