According to the Office of National Statistics, in 50 years’ time there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over. With an ageing population comes a rise in age-related conditions including dementia.
Although there is not yet a cure for dementia, some researchers believe that technology could be used to improve the quality of life for those living with the condition.
The use of virtual reality (VR) in the treatment of various mental health conditions, including PTSD, eating disorders phobias and schizophrenia, has produced positive results in several trials, and its has shown potential in delivering exposure therapy alongside other forms of mental health care.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in how the features of VR could positively impact people with dementia, with the technology largely used for assessing spatial navigation and memory training.
However, researchers from the University of Kent have now trialled it as a tool to help patients recall past memories, reduce aggression and improve interactions with carers, with positive results.
Trialing VR for dementia
Eight patients aged between 41 and 88 living with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease, took part in the study. Each patient used a VR headset to ‘visit’ one of five virtual environments; a cathedral, a forest, a sandy beach, a rocky beach and a countryside scene.
The patients took part in sixteen sessions and were monitored via feedback gathered from patients and their caregivers.
The researchers found that VR helped patients recall old memories by providing new stimuli which would otherwise be difficult for patients to view due to limited mobility or inaccessible within a secure environment.
One patient recalled a holiday when they saw a bridge in the VR because it reminded them of that trip while another remembered a holiday where they visited a market. These memories not only provided positive mental stimulation for the patients but helped their caregivers learn more about their lives before care, thereby improving their social interaction.
They also found that patients who became easily agitated or aggressive appeared calm while using the VR headsets, suggesting the technology and the opportunity to “escape” a physical environment could be used to improve mood.
They also found that the VR was able to “engross attention and empower autonomous experiences”, with patients able to choose which VR experiences they viewed, which may be beneficial for patients.
Although a far larger study is needed to explore this area further, as there are challenges associated with deploying VR technology within a more complicated healthcare setting, Dr Jim Ang, a researcher at the University of Kent’s School of Engineering and Digital Arts believes that the study shows the potential of this area:
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“VR can clearly have positive benefits for patients with dementia, their families and caregivers. It provides a richer and more satisfying quality of life than is otherwise available, with many positive outcomes. With further research it will be possible to further evaluate the elements of VEs that benefit patients and use VR even more effectively.”
Moving forward, the researchers hope to be able to produce VR experiences designed specifically for individual patients showing their home or favourite location, for example. As the technology becomes cheaper, and 360-degree VR video becomes easier to produce, meaning this will become more feasible.