Skip to Content
Artificial intelligence

The apps you use on your phone could help diagnose your cognitive health

January 10, 2020
An older woman's hands
An older woman's handsCristian Newman/Unsplash

Differences in the way healthy and cognitively impaired individuals used their smartphones were enough to tell them apart.

How they did it: Apple researchers monitored the app usage of 113 adults between the ages of 60 and 75 over 12 weeks. Thirty-one of them had clinically diagnosed cognitive impairment; 82 were healthy. For every session—from the moment users unlocked their phones to the moment they locked them again—the researchers logged the sequences of apps used and categorized the sessions into different types. The data was used to train a machine-learning model.

The results: The model was able to distinguish healthy from cognitively impaired users roughly 80% of the time, or 30% more often than chance. The results also showed that the context in which apps were used was important to the model’s prediction. An app like Messages used alone, for example, was strongly associated with a healthy individual, but used together with Mail was more strongly associated with a cognitively impaired individual.

Why it matters: Around 15% to 20% of people 65 and older suffer from mild cognitive impairment, which affects memory and thinking skills and increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Early diagnosis and treatment could help reverse the symptoms.

Future work: Apple has been conducting similar studies for a while now, but it’s still unclear how they intend to apply the results. This study in particular has been conducted on a very limited number of users and considers simple statistics on app usage. The researchers hope to incorporate richer data into their analysis, including the order in which apps are used, the time of day, and the users’ movements.

Deep Dive

Artificial intelligence

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

The viral AI avatar app Lensa undressed me—without my consent

My avatars were cartoonishly pornified, while my male colleagues got to be astronauts, explorers, and inventors.

Roomba testers feel misled after intimate images ended up on Facebook

An MIT Technology Review investigation recently revealed how images of a minor and a tester on the toilet ended up on social media. iRobot said it had consent to collect this kind of data from inside homes—but participants say otherwise.

How to spot AI-generated text

The internet is increasingly awash with text written by AI software. We need new tools to detect it.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.