Critter Corner: Can Digital Voice Assistants Help Detect Dementia?

Hayek 1Dear Hayek,

Most people I know have some sort of digital voice assistant in their home, such as Amazon’s Alexa. I read somewhere that these speakers are helping to detect dementia. How does that work, and aren’t there privacy concerns?

Thanks for your help!

Dee Tectshun

Dear Dee,

Research is revealing that in the early stages of dementia, people can experience subtle changes in their day-to-day life in areas such as sleep, speech, brain activity, and movement. These changes might not be noticeable to the human eye, but smart devices could be sensitive enough to detect patterns in them.

The number of households with smart digital voice assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, continues to grow. Debate continues over how they’re used and the potential privacy concerns they pose.

Researchers are finding that these devices may be able to play a role in our medical care, including tracking signs of dementia. Such technologies can continually monitor a variety of information about an individual’s location, voice, and movement. As this technology merges with wearables, such as the Apple Watch or Fitbit, it may become possible to diagnose a wide range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But should it?

Dr. Jason Karlawish Discusses Digital Voice Assistants and Detecting Dementia

Dr. Jason Karlawish, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (alma mater of Farr Law Firm shareholders Evan Farr and Sara Entis!), and co-director of the Penn Memory Center, recently spoke on this subject. He describes the following in his talk:

  • Alexa is able to monitor daily function. It can even begin to detect that the person isn’t doing daily tasks as well as they used to.
  • Alexa can be set up to monitor what you do, what you order, what you talk about, how you talk, how you’re setting your sentence structures, and your conversational exchanges. He believes it can passively take in all this data about your instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs such as shopping, housekeeping, and housework, for example) and that there’s great promise it could be able to diagnose cognitive impairment in the future.
  • Alexa can be programmed to monitor the beginning of loss of independence. It could begin to say that this individual isn’t doing as well as they used to on something that they were doing better on before and that therefore, interventions may be needed.
  • There’s great promise here, but of course, there are huge privacy concerns that need to be much more fully addressed.

Learn more by watching Dr. Karlawish and others speak on the subject at a Harvard Health Policy and Bioethics Consortium.

An Ongoing Study Aims to Provide More Insight on the Subject

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Boston have been working on a National Institute of Health-funded 18-month laboratory evaluation and a 28-month home evaluation with a focus on whether a voice assistant system’s tasks and features can measure and predict an individual’s cognitive decline in the home over time. According to lead scientist Xiaohui Liang, “Our team envisions that the changes in the speech patterns of individuals using the voice assistant systems may be sensitive to their decline in memory and function over time.” The study is slated to go until 2023. We will keep you updated on the results.

Besides possibly being a diagnostic tool, digital voice assistants can be helpful to those with early-stage dementia and caregivers. Learn more about this here.

Hope this is helpful,



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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.