Depression and cognitive decline are two huge mental health issues around the world. And, in the future, your iPhone may be able to help detect if you're struggling from either one. (Related: The Symptom of Depression No One Talks About)
That's the takeaway from a new report from The Wall Street Journal, which found that Apple Inc., the company that produces iPhones, is working on technology to help detect these conditions. Using sensor data, which includes mobility, physical activity, and even sleep patterns, researchers involved in the project hope to find digital signals that could be linked to one's physical and emotional wellbeing, according to the report.
The research, which is still ongoing, is part of a partnership with biotech company Biogen and the University of California, Los Angeles. Apple's work with Biogen is focused on detecting cognitive decline, while UCLA is studying stress, anxiety, and depression, according to The Wall Street Journal report.
Depression, which is also known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression, is a common but serious mood disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Severe symptoms of depression can often impact how you think, feel, and handle day-to-day activities, such as eating, sleeping, and concentrating, according to the NIMH. In order for one to be diagnosed with depression, however, symptoms must be present for two weeks in order to be diagnosed. Issues with energy and self-worth are also common. (ICYDK, there are four different types of depression.)
Back in 2017, an estimated 17.3 million adults in the U.S. aged 18 or older had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, about four in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared to 2019, when one in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Cognitive decline is defined as more frequent confusion or memory loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It tends to be one of the earliest noticeable symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias (e.g. Lewy body dementia). About five million American adults over the age of 65 were living with dementia in 2014, and the number is projected to increase to 14 million by 2060, according to the CDC. Signs of cognitive decline can include forgetting how to perform routine tasks, being unable to care for oneself, or being unable to perform daily tasks such as meal preparation. (Read more: New Study Shows Exercise May Drastically Reduce Your Risk of Dementia)
Now, you're probably wondering, how will Apple products fit into all of this? Well, it seems researchers are hoping that the data tracked from an iPhone's video camera, keyboard, and audio sensors, in addition to data from an Apple Watch "related to movement, vital signs, and sleep" can help to provide insight into the users' state of mind, energy level, and concentration, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, Biogen is currently conducting a two-year study with Apple of about 20,000 people (half are at high risk of developing cognitive impairment) and will use data from Apple devices similarly to how the technology would be used to detect depression, according to The Wall Street Journal. This comes on the heels of a 2019 study that found 31 adults, who had cognitive impairment, used their Apple devices differently than healthy adults.
Worth noting: This tech is still in early development and may never end up creating new features, but Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., a Philadelphia-area clinical psychologist and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, is already on board with the idea. "I love it," she says. "Even if you aren't depressed or struggling with cognitive decline, what's the worst that can happen? You take a closer look at your mental health."
Gallagher says a tool like this can be helpful because "many of us are not as aware of our own mental health as we should be." If someone — or something — happens to ask if you're okay, it can at least make you take a moment to think about how you're doing mentally, she notes. (Related: 4 Essential Mental Health Lessons Everyone Should Know, According to a Psychologist)
But Gallagher also points out that technology can't actually diagnose mental health conditions. "You do need a licensed professional," she says. "We spend years of our lives learning how to diagnose conditions and parse apart what's really going on." When it comes to technology, there is that chance of a machine potentially reading data incorrectly.
Apple technology as an "initial screener" for depression and cognitive decline, though, is a "great first step," in seeing future scientific advancements, says Gallagher.