Original Article

HealtheBrain: an innovative smartphone application to improve cognitive function in older adults

Erin M. Shellington, Tina Felfeli, Ryosuke Shigematsu, Dawn P. Gill, Robert J. Petrella


Background: Exercise-based interventions have shown promise in slowing cognitive decline, however there is limited evidence for scalability. Our previous research has linked a novel visuospatial memory exercise intervention, incorporating patterned walking or square-stepping exercise (SSE) with significant improvements in executive function and memory among older adults with normal cognition as well as those with subjective cognitive complaints (SCC) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The aim of the current study was to determine the feasibility and utility of the HealtheBrain smartphone app to deliver SSE outside the laboratory among older adults with and without cognitive impairment.
Methods: Previous healthy research subjects with and without SCC or MCI, who had previous exposure to SSE, and who owned or had access to an iPhone of iPad, were recruited to download the HealtheBrain app and use it up to 3 weeks. There were no restrictions on the number of times subjects could use the app. A 15-question survey was developed to assess feasibility and utility of the HealtheBrain app and completed online following the brief exposure period.
Results: Of 135 people who were identified, 95 were contacted between September 2014 to August 2015, 27 downloaded the HealtheBrain app on their iPhone or iPad from the App Store and 19 completed the questionnaire. Subjects (n=19) were an average age of 68.3±5.4; 74% female and had 15.5±2.8 years of education (84% post-secondary education), a mean Mini Mental State examination score of 29.1 (SD 1.2) out of 30 and Montreal Cognitive Assessment score of 26.3 (SD 1.9) out of 30. Subjects used the HealtheBrain app 1-7 days per week, mostly at home. Of possible stages of progression, subjects mainly used the stage 1 and 2 beginner patterns. Subjects reported perceived and technical challenges registering horizontal step patterns associated with stage 2 and greater progression. Sixty percent found the app was easy to use or similar to what they experienced with SSE in the laboratory setting. Most said they would continue to use the HealtheBrain app and would recommend it to friends and family.
Conclusions: The HealtheBrain app was feasible in providing SSE to older adults with the appropriate smartphone device outside the laboratory setting. Challenges were identified with perceived capture of higher levels of SSE stages that used horizontal step patterns. This as well as technical issues with horizontal step patterns will be addressed by newer GPS technology in current smartphone devices. Most subjects stated they would continue to use the HealtheBrain app and refer to their friends and family. We believe that our findings in a representative cohort support the HealtheBrain app as a scalable intervention to promote cognitive health in older adults.

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