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Waterloo, Ont., researchers created an app that uses a cell phone GPS to prove the link between the area a person covers daily and dementia.

It creates promise for a simple tool for early detection or evaluating drugs.

“There was an important correlation between a reduction in life space and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Pascal Poupart, associate professor in University of Waterloo’s computer science department who co-led the study.

Life space is the area a person travels throughout the day, and how comfortable people are moving around in their environment has long been thought to be a subtle indicator of dementia.

But previous studies depended on questionnaires asking people where they ventured outside home — an unreliable method considering memory loss is the hallmark of dementia.

Using the GPS on a person’s phone objectively and accurately tracked daily routes, said Poupart, who oversaw the app development and collection and analysis of the data.

The results of tracking ‘life space’

He co-led the study with Prof. Eric Roy in UW’s faculty of applied health sciences, in collaboration with a doctor specializing in dementia at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto.

The researchers found adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease showed a significantly smaller life space than healthy adults.

“They tend to be just less active and it has to do with the deterioration of their functional abilities,” Poupart said.

He admits he was surprised by the results, initially thinking there were too many factors that affect how far people travel in course of a day. But a clear pattern emerged — a finding that has a lot of potential.

Alzheimer’s disease is now diagnosed with an examination by doctors and medical imaging, which is expensive and there’s a wait.

“There’s a need to actually do triage,” Poupart said.

The takeaway

He’s hoping simple tools like his app measuring a person’s life space can help pinpoint people who show early signs of dementia and need further testing.

It could also be used to determine if a particular drug is actually helping a patient or if another should be tried. Now it can be tricky for a doctor to know if medication is relieving symptoms because the patient’s memory is uncertain.

“Usually they have to rely on a family member to assess how the drug is working,” Poupart said.

The objective measure could also be used by drug companies to evaluate the effectiveness of different prescriptions, he said.

Reprinted with permission from Metroland Media.

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