Using wearable technology to explore dementia risk factors

By Martin Seneviratne, MD in Nokia Challenge

Much has been written about the possible links between lifestyle and the onset of dementia. There is some evidence to suggest that aerobic exercise may be protective. Even sleep quality has emerged as an important factor. Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves against cognitive decline? Can we detect dementia early by tracking subtle behavioral changes?

As one of five international finalists in the Nokia-Medicine X Digital Health Challenge, a team of researchers from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) decided to delve deeper into the interaction between lifestyle and cognitive function – using wearables.

A team of design engineers, a gerontologist, clinical neuropsychologists, and a data scientist used a range of connected devices (smart watches, a smartphone and a sleep tracker placed under the mattress) to track daily physical activity and sleep patterns in 54 participants over a 6-month period. They then compared these data against the patients’ baseline cognitive function scores.

The key finding was a positive correlation between daily physical activity (average step count, average heart rate) and baseline cognitive function, as well as interesting linkages between physical activity and sleep.

“Using wearables allowed us to gain new insights into a patient’s daily behaviors,” said one of the study leads, Dr Francois Patou. “We were one of the first studies to use longitudinal time-series data from a patient’s sleep in their home environment, rather than isolated hospital sleep studies.” The team is now exploring the causal relationships underpinning these first findings.

“We were surprised by the level of interest of patients – they wanted to know more about their own behavior,” said Prof Anja Maier, another study lead. The challenge remains how to turn data into behavior change.

One key learning was that the health system needs to have a holistic approach in supporting behavior change – an approach focused on prevention and protection rather than reactive medicine. Wearables can be dovetailed into clinical workflows to gather new streams of data that have never before been possible to acquire.

“[This experience] motivated our passion for researching the intersection of healthcare and technology,” said Prof Maier.


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DTU Engineering Systems team – finalists in the Medicine X Nokia Digital Health Challenge (Photograph supplied).

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