Power of Research: MedicAlert Sheds New Light on Dementia & Wandering

An elderly man wandering

For anyone facing the daunting diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, the fear of uncertainly looms large. From memory loss, loss of independence and the stigma associated, it can be very overwhelming. But what if there was another option? MedicAlert saw an opportunity to better understand the disease through research, with the goal of empowering people living with dementia.

Dementia is a complex condition and one of the most challenging aspects is wandering. It’s estimated that 60% of people living with dementia will wander at some point, regardless of the stage of the disease.

Taking a walk or wandering is something everyone does. But this simple act becomes dangerous when a person living with dementia becomes confused and cannot find their way home. Even more concerning, this can happen day or night.

Until recently these episodes seemed unpredictable and random. But thanks to ground-breaking analysis research from MedicAlert, these potentially dangerous wandering episodes can be managed, and even predicted.

In 2022, MedicAlert teamed with Dr Antonio Miguel Cruz, Associate Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Alberta. The purpose? To better understand why and when people living with dementia wander and whether data analytics could be the key to preventing these incidents.

Dr. Miguel Cruz used two sets of important data collected by MedicAlert. Data from subscribers and the MedicAlert hotline reports when subscribers go missing. MedicAlert has been tracking the wandering history of people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s for over a decade and has amassed the largest database of its kind in the world.

“I wanted to take this data and build a model to calculate the risks of getting lost and being lost,” said Dr. Miguel Cruz. “Everyone can wander, but when they (a person living with dementia) are lost, that is when the problems start.” Dr. Miguel Cruz uses term ‘critical wandering’, when a person is disorientated in time and space. His goal was to analyze the most important risk factors and learn how to avoid that critical moment of wandering.

Among the key statistics Dr. Miguel Cruz analyzed were; who got lost, where they were found, how long they were missing, and when they returned home safely. He also factored in age, dementia, living arrangement, ethnic background, population density, living arrangements, sex at birth and use of medication.

The results of his research were nothing short of groundbreaking. Using this model, Dr.Miguel Cruz was able to predict the probability of critical wandering, offering invaluable insights for patients and their caregivers. For example, the study revealed, the chances of a person living with dementia and critical wandering increases with age. For those 65-74 and older, episodes of critical wandering and subsequently getting lost are 2.8 times higher than people under the age of 65. Those who identified as male at birth are 1.10 more likely to wander than women (who identified as female at birth). Minorities are at a higher risk of critical wandering then Caucasians. Living in an urban area increases your risk as does living in a retirement home or long-term care setting. For those whose first language is not English or French, this also puts them at a higher risk.

For Dr. Miguel Cruz, this was the most important outcome of his research. “With this research, if you know what your risks are then you can implement some strategies…people can do something because they can anticipate when it’s going to happen.”

These findings hold enormous promise for MedicAlert, leading the way for the development of technologies such as apps, web portals, GPS trackers or other innovations that can support patients in making informed decisions for their well-being.

This research also helps protect the dignity of people living with dementia. No one wants to be trapped or confined, and the purpose is not to prevent critical wandering but to care for those who do.

“I think this research will impact MedicAlert in accomplishing their mission which is to bring back people home safely, as the ultimate goal is not to wander. We all have the right to wander but we need to wander safely.”