Smartphones: the new dementia drugs?

My favorite smartphone word game app now tells me it can improve my memory and potentially prevent my dementia. This is a remarkable advance and a larger incentive to keep playing than just giving me points and emoticons. If only it were true. Unfortunately, mental ill health is quite complex and chronic, and the treatments require more than an addiction to the flat, small screen.

To see if any of these games promote my mental health, keep reading my blog and make your own judgement

Depending on where you live and your reception, you are probably like me and look at your smartphone up to 100 times a day. The likelihood of one of those interactions involving a mental health site is very low, despite the large number of applications available. In 2012 there were more than 40 000 mobile device applications for health care, now that number has more than quadrupled.

So, it is no wonder that the health apps seeking to fix my brain find me through other routes. The evidence shows that social media connections and word of mouth are common routes to find apps. For me it’s no different, except I know that any relationship between metal health claims on apps and evidence is purely coincidental. I’ve yet to suggest a mental health app or have a clinician suggest one to me with any confidence. This is because we clinicians are reluctant to make recommendations to our patients on the kind of evidence we have been taught not to trust.

Once users enter the app world, they acquiesce to a whole new paradigm based on anecdote and narrative. Even WHO has developed a rating system that is divorced from any of the hard data techniques we have come to rely upon in medicine.  Engagement, functionality, aesthetics, information, and subjective quality are the new benchmarks for health apps.

Probably a good idea. Of the people who do download health apps, about one-third stop using the app quite quickly because it is too confusing.  Nearly half stop because they lose interest. The remainder continue to use the app because it is easy to use, not because they think it is effective. They trust that it is effective from reading app reviews  and testimonials. Like any internet buyer, they are price conscious. The lower priced mental health apps have significantly higher ratings than higher priced apps.

Where mental health apps are concerned, research-based science is unimportant. Helpful sites such as PsyberGuide have sprung up. Unfortunately, they only contain reviews by certified mental health professionals and a way to access, but not evaluate, the little research available  in an unsystematic way.

Despite these limitations, the widespread reach of mobile communication makes some apps attractive. In a cash strapped world where funding for mental health promotion is a low priority, mental health apps are an attractive and more affordable option to propagate health promotion, disease prevention and monitoring messages.

In the meantime, to see if any of these games promote my mental health, keep reading my blog and make your own judgement. Happy new year!

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