Apple research paper hints iPhone habits can predict mental decline with age

Posted:
in iPhone edited May 6
Newly-published Apple research argues that seniors not only use iPhone apps differently than their younger counterparts, but that their habits can predict future brain decline.

Senior smartphoning


A paper, "App Usage Predicts Cognitive Ability in Older Adults," was shared during the ongoing ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Glasgow, Scotland. Credited are six researchers -- Mitchell Gordon, Leon Gatys, Carlos Guestrin, Jeffrey Bigham, Andrew Trister, and Kayur Patel -- all of whom work for Apple except for Gordon, who did the research while he was an intern but has since moved on to Stanford University.

In the course of research, Apple collected iPhone data and cognitive test results from 84 otherwise healthy people aged 61 to 76 for three months in 2018. The median age was 66, and 69 percent were women.

"We find that older adults use fewer apps, take longer to complete tasks, and send fewer messages," the researchers say in their abstract. "We use cognitive test results from these same older adults to then show that up to 79% of these differences can be explained by cognitive decline, and that we can predict cognitive test performance from smartphone usage with 83% ROCAUC [receiver operating characteristic area under curve]." Seniors who are "cognitively young" tend to use iPhones like younger people, the paper adds.

The study challenges prior research linking usage differences mostly to culture, values, and lifestyle.

The Apple researchers acknowledge several limitations to their work, among them a relatively small sample size, the absence of a controlled, randomly-assigned experiment, and potential "confounders" like hidden medical and socio-economic conditions. The comparison with younger adults was also based on prior work rather than a newly-recruited batch, and the 84 seniors were given new iPhone 7 units running backups of their existing iPhones, likely resulting in a "breaking-in period" for some.

Ultimately, outside research and meta-analysis will likely be needed to verify Apple's findings.

It's still a rare occurence for Apple researchers to publish papers, mostly a consequence of the company's secrecy. Most of these are about machine learning, though it did collaborate with Stanford Medicine on the Apple Heart Study, which collected data from 419,093 Apple Watch owners.

Apple has shown growing interest in the senior market, for instance adding fall detection to the Apple Watch Series 4. It's reportedly looking to get the Series 3 into the hands of U.S. Medicare users, and iOS has a range of accessibility options.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 16
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 7,061member
    Well, my wife is “cognitively young” then at age 69. She is on her iPhone 8 constantly, texting our adult children about our grandchildren and offering life advice. She plays Candy Crush, uses Facebook, and is always looking at online shopping sites. She could probably make use of Screen Time but I wouldn’t dare suggest it as I value my happy home life.  B)
    macpluspluschasmlolliver
  • Reply 2 of 16
    usersinceos1usersinceos1 Posts: 116member
    "The study challenges prior research linking usage differences mostly to culture, values, and lifestyle". Well, speaking as an older adult (age 77), I'd like to point out that many older people DO live in a different culture, have different values, and live a different lifestyle, than younger people.   I'm fortunate that I have worked in an academic environment all of my career, so I have constantly been exposed to younger people and their distinctly different, and changing, "culture, values, and lifestyle".  I know people my age who haven't had that exposure, and they probably do use fewer apps, take longer to complete phone tasks, etc.  However, I wouldn't attribute these traits to a sign of cognitive decline, but instead are due to their just living a less techie, older culture and lifestyle.
    edited May 6 macplusplusking editor the grate13485kruegdudeentropyschasm
  • Reply 3 of 16
    My dad will be 80 this fall. In college to be a business teacher, he got to feed punchcards into a computer and thought, well, that's neat, but I wonder if it will ever have any practical value or if I'll get to interact with computers again? He rode the curve with a NorthStar Horizon, then a used PC, always with shelves full of thick software manuals. We got him an iPad Air 2 a couple of years ago, and he's digging the snot out of it; it's like hazy future presaged by punchcards finally arrived. One of his favorite uses is for piano music he plays for church services at the VA. He's since supplemented a couple of PC towers with a Mac Mini, I think partly because it's easier for mom to navigate.

    All that typed, I hope that when I'm his age, I decide I've got better things to do than stare at screens and poke around at gizmo whatsis. I might well "take longer to complete tasks" when I quit partway through whatever I'm doing and mosey or/and saunter around the block.
    wozwoz
  • Reply 4 of 16
    zoetmbzoetmb Posts: 2,444member
    "We find that older adults use fewer apps, take longer to complete tasks, and send fewer messages," 

    Maybe they use fewer apps because they don't have ADHD and find a smaller set of practical apps that accomplish everything they need to and they don't always need to jump on the next thing.  And maybe they send fewer messages because they put all their thoughts together in a single message instead of sending a text every time some idiot piece of trivia pops into their head and because they don't gossip as much or maybe it's because older people still use email.   I bet they'd also find that older people take fewer selfies and don't post every trivial piece of their life on social media, like "I'm at McDonald's and here's a photo of my French fries".    And maybe they don't spend as much time on their devices because they have a life outside of those devices and still understand how to interact with real people.   

    Maybe they do take longer to compete tasks (although I'm 68 and I don't), although I bet a higher percentage of older people know how to type properly.   

    This sounds like so much b.s. and strikes of ageism.   What caused them to study this in the first place?  Sounds like they had a theory with a predetermined result and then interpreted their study to get that result.  

    I think younger people also forget that it's the people who are now "older" who created this industry in the first place.   Most of the people who created the microcomputer industry and who developed the web for consumers and businesses are in their 70's now.  




    wozwozYvLykruegdude
  • Reply 5 of 16
    auxioauxio Posts: 1,987member
    All that typed, I hope that when I'm his age, I decide I've got better things to do than stare at screens and poke around at gizmo whatsis. I might well "take longer to complete tasks" when I quit partway through whatever I'm doing and mosey or/and saunter around the block.
    One can't really say that either activity is better.  It's good to keep both the mind and the body in shape for as long as possible.
  • Reply 6 of 16
    LatkoLatko Posts: 382member
    Monitors, no monitors, own screen techn, no screen tech, peripherals, no peripherals, network devices, no network devices, discontinued servers. After so many years, most customers are completely fed up with the diversity of direction, the perceived indifference, lack of strategy etc. Nobody can determine whether this company run by some billionaire alzheimerist planners stands for, or what the future will bring. And there’s hardly an iPhone or computer available or needed to diagnose that. OMG wait, now they are planning to diagnose _us_
    edited May 6
  • Reply 7 of 16
    danvdrdanvdr Posts: 13member
    Even though this is weak study, it does have interesting potential. Seems like it wouldn't be too hard to observe people with early dementia on a smart phone, learn their patterns and then develop something to help with early diagnosis.
  • Reply 8 of 16
    1348513485 Posts: 46member
    Older people simply may not care to have a phone attached to their ear or fingertips. I would be willing to bet that seniors use their hand-held mobile communication devices as frequently as they used a telephone previously. As a scientist I would be ashamed to present such a poorly designed study. As a senior, I often leave my iphone in the car because I have better things to do.

    It's not a mental deficiency, Apple, it's maturity.


    PS: The underlying messages of this "study": 1)  If you aren't using our devices, you are crazy.  2) Like, old people are, like, weird.
    edited May 6 wozwozmacpluspluskruegdudeentropys
  • Reply 9 of 16
    wozwozwozwoz Posts: 225member
    In a new study, Apple engineers have been able to predict Attention Deficit Disorder in young people, based on their iPhone usage. Those with acute ADD tended to switch apps most frequently, send more messages, upvote or downvote more frequently, and have more facebook friends. They were also quicker to 'complete' tasks, but did not in fact complete the tasks correctly, resulting in slower total times. Some of these effects were also correlated with lower IQ.
    13485macplusplusYvLy
  • Reply 10 of 16
    What kind of experience with identifying and studying cognitive decline to these researchers have?
    Cognitive decline and dementia are not limited to the elderly, not anymore.
    There is a pretty big uptick in cognitive decline in younger age groups and no common denominator at this time. 

    I have met more elderly people who have their stuff together in life, so they don’t require multiple apps and to be on their devices all of the time like younger people do.

    Btw, fall detection on the watch should be on by default no matter what age you are. 
  • Reply 11 of 16
    YvLyYvLy Posts: 79member
    Flawed. In every way.
    macplusplus
  • Reply 12 of 16
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 1,358member
    My mom has always been pretty technically illiterate. Several years ago we got my her an iPhone because she couldn't’ figure out how to check voicemail or send text messages on her old flip phone. She did pretty well for a while, but several months ago she started mixing up e-mails and text messages and we would get an e-mail with the entire message in the subject line. We already knew she had dementia, but it was another sign that it was progressing. 
  • Reply 13 of 16
    chasmchasm Posts: 1,517member
    The study did not say that using fewer apps and taking longer to use them than younger people was a sign of mental decline. Read it again -- it said that was common among seniors, and that changes from those cognitive "norms" for the age group could predict mental decline.

    I work with seniors routinely, and I would say that this study is flawed -- but not in the way most commenters above me would. A major factor that has likely not been incorporated into the study is that these older folks didn't grow up with any of this as "normal", and IME it is their quest for new learning (i.e., how enthusiastic they are about learning new things or finding ways to accommodate their other abilities) that marks whether they will be "cognitively young" or not.

    The other week I taught a fellow who had really been struggling with his iPhone how to dictate his reminders, notes, appointments, email, and issue some commands by voice -- like "open ebay.com" -- and after some practice to remember the key words needed and how to "compose your thought" before you speak, this one "trick" has increased his use of the iPhone tenfold. His big issue was that he really couldn't deal with the tiny keyboard on iPhones, and wasn't good at remembering the little differences between apps and how they worked.

    I'm delighted to hear that Apple is focusing more on seniors -- the basic services have been there for a long time, but the recent enhancements in health and what they used to call "universal access" will really make a difference if they leverage these abilities in some senior-targeted ads (that appear mostly where young people wouldn't see them -- don't want to look "uncool" ya know!).
    edited May 6 dewme
  • Reply 14 of 16
    dewmedewme Posts: 2,055member
    chasm said:
    The study did not say that using fewer apps and taking longer to use them than younger people was a sign of mental decline. Read it again -- it said that was common among seniors, and that changes from those cognitive "norms" for the age group could predict mental decline.

    I work with seniors routinely, and I would say that this study is flawed -- but not in the way most commenters above me would. A major factor that has likely not been incorporated into the study is that these older folks didn't grow up with any of this as "normal", and IME it is their quest for new learning (i.e., how enthusiastic they are about learning new things or finding ways to accommodate their other abilities) that marks whether they will be "cognitively young" or not.

    The other week I taught a fellow who had really been struggling with his iPhone how to dictate his reminders, notes, appointments, email, and issue some commands by voice -- like "open ebay.com" -- and after some practice to remember the key words needed and how to "compose your thought" before you speak, this one "trick" has increased his use of the iPhone tenfold. His big issue was that he really couldn't deal with the tiny keyboard on iPhones, and wasn't good at remembering the little differences between apps and how they worked.

    I'm delighted to hear that Apple is focusing more on seniors -- the basic services have been there for a long time, but the recent enhancements in health and what they used to call "universal access" will really make a difference if they leverage these abilities in some senior-targeted ads (that appear mostly where young people wouldn't see them -- don't want to look "uncool" ya know!).
    Great post. Any comparative measure is only as good as the the reference point. I may be jaded but I assume the vast majority of marketing (which includes product development) is targeted at the most profitable demographic, which has not traditionally been seniors. It’s like surveying who is buying spandex yoga pants - we’re not expecting to see a lot of seniors in the buying mix. Reaching conclusions about seniors and yoga pants based on usage patterns is unlikely to yield anything conclusive. 

    I too would like to see more apps that are considerate of the needs of seniors and people with physical and cognitive limitations. To some degree, I think that highly engaging apps that challenge memory and recollection are helpful for seniors, but from personal experience I know that no app on the planet can reverse or help compensate for the permanent negative effects associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But these concerns are at the extremity and there are many compensation actions that could be incorporated into apps to make them more attractive and useful for seniors.

    To put a positive spin on this, if you’re an app developer looking to tap into an underserved market, consider taking an empathetic approach to solving some of the basic needs of seniors that can be delivered on mobile platforms. This may provide a path to a very lucrative payback as the senior population continues to expand. 
  • Reply 15 of 16
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,699member
    Did they get their mates to peer review it? It looks like it has a few methodology issues, and the conclusions a tad ambitious.
    edited May 7
  • Reply 16 of 16
    1348513485 Posts: 46member
    chasm said:
    The study did not say that using fewer apps and taking longer to use them than younger people was a sign of mental decline. Read it again -- it said that was common among seniors, and that changes from those cognitive "norms" for the age group could predict mental decline.

    I work with seniors routinely, and I would say that this study is flawed -- but not in the way most commenters above me would. A major factor that has likely not been incorporated into the study is that these older folks didn't grow up with any of this as "normal", and IME it is their quest for new learning (i.e., how enthusiastic they are about learning new things or finding ways to accommodate their other abilities) that marks whether they will be "cognitively young" or not.

    The other week I taught a fellow who had really been struggling with his iPhone how to dictate his reminders, notes, appointments, email, and issue some commands by voice -- like "open ebay.com" -- and after some practice to remember the key words needed and how to "compose your thought" before you speak, this one "trick" has increased his use of the iPhone tenfold. His big issue was that he really couldn't deal with the tiny keyboard on iPhones, and wasn't good at remembering the little differences between apps and how they worked.

    I'm delighted to hear that Apple is focusing more on seniors -- the basic services have been there for a long time, but the recent enhancements in health and what they used to call "universal access" will really make a difference if they leverage these abilities in some senior-targeted ads (that appear mostly where young people wouldn't see them -- don't want to look "uncool" ya know!).
    Nice post. However, if "...and that changes from those cognitive "norms" for the age group could predict mental decline" was their conclusion, DUH. That's practically the definition of mental decline.

    Again, bad study, bad conclusion.
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