Smartphones can be of some support in improving cognitive function amongst people without dementia, but they are underutilised by clinicians and users
“Major barriers included cognitive, motor, and sensory impairments and device-specific complaints making these devices difficult to use without adjustments, but this barrier could be overcome with careful consideration and support from clinicians." Authors of A Systematic Review of Smartphone and Tablet Use by Older Adults With and Without Cognitive Impairment
Smartphones and tablets can aid cognitive function in people without cognitive impairment, but there is scant evidence they can help those already suffering with dementia, a systematic review has found.
The University of Liverpool researchers searched six databases to find articles published between 2010 and 2021 that evaluated smartphone or tablet effectiveness for cognition or memory in older adults (those over 50) living in the community. In the 28 papers included in the narrative synthesis, they found some evidence that the use of smartphones and tablets could aid cognitive function in older adults without cognitive impairment, particularly executive function and processing speed. There was only “modest evidence”, however, “that smartphone and tablet use could support memory in both older adults without cognitive impairment and those with acquired brain injury and dementia.”
Researchers also found that smartphones and tablets were seen by users as “acceptable, enjoyable, and nonstigmatizing” alternatives to conventional assistive technology devices. They note, however, that current use of smartphone and tablet devices is hindered by a lack of digital literacy in older adults, as well as a lack of accommodation in the devices for adult users’ motor and sensory impairments, and a lack of input from clinicians and researchers.
Smartphones, the researchers note, are “part of the everyday lives of today’s older adults and will become more important as the general population ages and the ‘older adult’ demographic grows to include people for whom smartphones and tablets have been an integral part of their lives for decades.” Despite their ubiquity, smartphones are currently underutilised by both users and clinicians to support cognitive and memory problems, they argue.
“Major barriers included cognitive, motor, and sensory impairments and device-specific complaints making these devices difficult to use without adjustments, but this barrier could be overcome with careful consideration and support from clinicians,” the researchers write.
Another common barrier is “anxiety around technology or technophobia”, which “could be overcome through training interventions and continued practice with the devices.”
Much of the evidence in the review, they point out, derives from case studies and small-scale trials of smartphone and tablet training interventions.
The researchers say that further research is needed into older adults’ use of smartphones and tablets for cognitive support, both before and after the onset of cognitive impairment. This will help “develop effective evidence-based smart technology cognition and memory aids.”
We live in a rapidly ageing society, with one in six people over 80 experiencing dementia. If we are to make a dent in those numbers, we need to investigate ways of improving cognitive ability in older people as a matter of urgency.
Could smartphones be the answer? In the space of just a few years, smartphones and tablets have become nearly ubiquitous in our lives. The growth has been accompanied by a proliferation of apps that claim to help improve cognitive ability and memory, but so far there has been little evidence to show how useful they are. This review of research demonstrates they may have some benefit to those without cognitive impairment, but clearly much more research needs to be done both comparing different apps and looking at bigger populations.