How Virtual Reality is Revolutionizing Dementia Treatment

Elderly person experiencing virtual reality with a caregiver, symbolizing the innovation of VR in dementia care

Dementia is one of the most significant neurodegenerative conditions in recent days. The prevalence of dementia is far-reaching.

Estimates indicate that globally at least fifty million people are living with this condition, and the affected population is expected to more than double by 2030, reaching 153 million by 2050.

Being a life-limiting condition affects cognitive functioning and impairs engagement in daily living activities. The lack of a definite cure for this condition is disheartening. However, researchers are making remarkable progress in discovering some ways and methods that can substantially relieve some of the symptoms of this condition and potentially slow down the neurodegenerative decline associated with this disease.

Due to the ailment’s severe impact on a patient’s living arrangements, any approaches likely to create notable improvements are welcome. Technology has emerged as a valuable actor in this domain; significant advances in this technology and its successful application in some aspects of health, such as mental health, have allowed exploration of its potential use in dementia treatment.

What is Virtual Reality? 

Virtual reality refers to computer-simulated images of real-time environments, objects, locations, or other imagined environments graphically rendered in 3D to a significantly advanced level that allows other users to interact (using virtual reality headsets) with those virtual environments in a manner that allows them to have a perception of being present in those locations or environments.

These technologies permit real-time updates of the environment based on the position and actions of the actor interacting with them, creating a perception of an actual response or interaction within that environment.

What is Virtual Reality

The capability of virtual reality technologies to allow users to have a perception of presence is one of their defining features, and this has led to their being treated as possessing higher qualitative value than other similar technologies previously used in gaming applications. This is often based on the fidelity of the system and its attendant immersiveness, which heavily influence user perceptions of the substance of the virtual environment.

Immersive virtual reality has proliferated into a number of disciplines and spheres of life. These include gaming applications, workplaces, and recently medicine. The successful applications of technology in some of these areas have led to arguments and attempts to integrate it into medicine, with significant attempts to explore its usefulness in dementia patients. These efforts are ongoing, and this technology may play a larger role in dementia treatment. Here are some of the current use cases of virtual reality in the treatment of dementia patients.

Applications of Virtual Reality in Dementia Treatment 

Early Diagnosis

One of the most critical steps in dementia treatment and management is the diagnosis of the disease. It is necessary to identify the severity of dementia in the patient. Being a progressive neurodegenerative condition that affects patients with dementia in their later years of life, accurate and early diagnosis is often challenging.

People with dementia only start receiving treatment and attention for their condition once symptoms become apparent, implying a significant loss period when treatment and management would have been more effective in slowing down the disease. However, developments in virtual reality for early dementia diagnosis have provided encouraging results. For instance, neurologists may use virtual environments to assess cognitive and other mental abilities. 

dementia diagnosis

In such situations, patients complete specific daily activities in a virtual environment, and results are used to evaluate subtle brain changes that could point to the onset of dementia. This can provide a potent tool for clinicians to assess their interaction with the virtual environment, providing real-time data on their positional orientation, memory, environmental navigation, and other capabilities that could not be immediately detectable on standard tests. This method also offers the advantages of being more interactive and entertaining, less invasive and less stressful, especially for patients with other emotional issues.

Reminiscence Therapy 

This is one of the most promising areas of virtual reality (VR) for treating dementia patients. Dementia patients often lose their memory, cognitive capabilities and other mental capabilities as their disease progresses. This can make life more difficult and dull, and potentially burden their caregivers. However, with virtual reality, patients can explore and interact with virtual environments in a manner that recreates life scenes that they may already be familiar with. It could spark their memory, allowing them to interact with treasured environments and locations in a manner that improves their memory and other cognitive abilities.

Employing visual cues such as photo albums rekindles the patient’s sensations. In this way, caregivers learn about the patient’s life before the onset of the disease and their interests and desires. This was demonstrated in one study conducted by researchers at the University of Kent in which eight patients were allowed to explore five different virtual environments.

Reminiscence Therapy

In the study, the authors noted that patients demonstrated their interest, with some patients wishing to repeatedly explore specific environments, while others explored diverse environments. In addition, these environments allowed some patients to recreate some environments or reminisce about past experiences. These could also open an opportunity for caregivers to learn about the patient’s interests and their ways of socializing for better interaction.

Researchers also observed that the information gleaned from these interactions with virtual reality environments could be helpful in creating patient-specific environments that resonate with their interests. Moreover, such interactions are valuable for the treatment of anxiety and other mood disorders that often affect dementia patients.

Training Dementia Nurses and Caregivers

This is one of the most exciting areas in using Virtual Reality in dementia treatment. Caring for and treating dementia patients is one of the most demanding tasks, and most caregivers and health professionals do not have a firm grasp of how the condition affects the patients and their systems. Long-term care institutions may deploy virtual reality to train medical professionals and family caregivers.

Training Dementia Nurses and Caregivers

In one recent development, a firm developed a virtual reality tool that allows healthy persons to perform daily activities but with limited sensory perception due to the effects of the tool. This situation enables trainees to experience what dementia patients go through, creating a better understanding of the conditions and their attendant difficulties while allowing them to have empathy when caring for dementia patients.

Conclusion 

Virtual reality presents one of the most exciting technological developments in recent days, and its applications in medicine, particularly in treating dementia patients, are just emerging. These use cases are not yet verified, and most studies use small sample sizes to provide a meaningful basis for evaluating their efficiency. However, it is a strong starting point that will likely lead to further developments in the future, revolutionizing dementia treatment in the process. Governments and big tech brands need to come forward for more research on virtual reality-based dementia interventions.

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Cherie Voise

Cherie Voise

Cherie Voise, inspired by personal experiences and driven by her role as an advocate, founded Voise Foundation to improve the lives of those with dementia. As the foundation's key content creator and blog author, she draws on her deep understanding of the disease, advocating for respect, dignity, and creative therapy avenues such as VST Music© and other programs. Cherie's heartfelt writings, fueled by empathy, resonate with readers, offering insight and stirring action. Become a part of this journey and together with Cherie, let's make a meaningful impact in the world of dementia care.