Virtual Reality: The Future of Senior Health

elderly woman wearing virtual reality headset and smiling

When it comes to health care, the first things that come to mind are often medications and doctors. But there’s a newcomer to the field of medicine that’s paving the way for a different kind of treatment: virtual reality.

Virtual reality is quickly becoming popular in the science and medical fields as an innovative way to discover and learn about different health conditions. From treating post-traumatic stress disorder to helping medical students learn human anatomy, virtual reality is changing the game of medicine.

Virtual reality also shows great promise when it comes to senior care. In fact, research has found that VR technology can even help detect a higher risk of Alzheimer’s Disease as early as age 18. To learn more about how virtual reality improves the lives of seniors around the world, keep reading or jump to the infographic below.

How Virtual Reality Is Used To Improve Senior Health

From improving memory care to combating social isolation, virtual reality has nearly unlimited potential when it comes to helping the senior health care industry. Below are some of the many ways virtual reality is used to help seniors maintain their quality of life.

Pain Management

Virtual reality helps people of all ages manage pain in hundreds of hospitals across the country. By placing patients in an immersive, multi-sensory environment, virtual reality can be used to effectively distract them from chronic and acute pain.

SnowWorld, a virtual reality game created in 1996, takes users on a fun adventure through a snow-filled canyon to distract them from pain. First used to help burn victims cope with painful treatments, SnowWorld redirects concentration from a reality of pain and discomfort to a day playing in the snow.

This distraction helps doctors manage and limit patients’ needs for opioids and other strong drugs. In fact, immersion in virtual reality has been found to be as effective as a moderate dose of such drugs, with burn victims reporting 30 to 50% less pain while playing the game.

For seniors living with chronic pain caused by conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis, virtual reality offers an alternative to medications that can have harmful side effects. Virtual reality is likely to become a more common therapeutic practice for pain management in the coming years.

Early Alzheimer’s Detection

When it comes to memory loss diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, early detection is often the key to effective treatment. Virtual reality may be the future of this early detection.

VR helps doctors identify higher-risk individuals as early as age 18, according to studies done by German Alzheimer’s care scientists. To detect the disease, scientists tested adults ages 18 to 30 with a virtual reality maze. The group with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s Disease tended to navigate the maze differently and showed reduced functioning of a specific brain cell involved in spatial navigation.

Sea Hero Quest is a virtual reality game created by gaming studio Glitchers and Deutsche Telekom in partnership with University College London, the University of East Anglia and Alzheimer’s Research UK.

The game presents users with a map, then puts them through an interactive world filled with puzzles they solve with information they recall from the map, without the map in front of them. With spatial navigation loss known as an early symptom of dementia, performance in this game helps researchers identify those with a higher risk of memory loss. The game has gathered 1,700 years’ worth of data in just two years, thanks to the millions of players who have used the game.

The benefits of early detection are significant. Those with higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s will be better able to plan for their futures. In addition, they may be better able to participate in clinical trials, respond more effectively to medication and use therapeutic methods to slow the progression of the disease.

Alzheimer’s and Dementia Therapy

Virtual reality also helps Alzheimer’s patients in therapy and treatment. For example, Alzheimer’s Australia partnered with gaming companies to create a relaxing virtual experience for those living with memory loss.

Many seniors living with Alzheimer’s Disease experience agitation as a result of their memory loss. To relieve this stress, a virtual forest was created to offer Alzheimer’s patients a peaceful, soothing environment free of agitation-inducing stimulants.

More thrilling virtual reality experiences are being used in the United Kingdom to help those living with dementia. The CAREN program (Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment) puts users through interactive virtual games and activities like downhill skiing, high-speed racing and even shark fighting.

While fighting sharks may seem counterintuitive to treatment for those living with memory loss, the program shows significant long-term benefits for balance, cognition, spatial awareness and mobility. It’s also being used to treat veterans of war and those with combat injuries.

Veteran Care

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is used as a way to help veterans cope with symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and other phobias.

Exposure therapy works by targeting behaviors veterans may use as a way to avoid certain activities or stimulants they find stressful. For example, a land mine victim may avoid walking through an open area out of fear.

If these avoidance behaviors are left unchecked, they can significantly impact the veteran’s quality of life. Exposure therapy aims to help reduce a person’s fear or anxiety with the goal of eliminating avoidance behaviors.

For veterans with PTSD caused by combat, exposure therapy has, until recently, been a challenge. It’s difficult to replicate combat environments, so veterans haven’t yet benefited from exposure therapy. But with the introduction of virtual reality to the healthcare industry, veterans can now face their fears with VRET.

Using a headset or other virtual reality device, veterans can safely confront fear-inducing situations. VRET was found to reduce symptoms of PTSD in veterans of the Vietnam War, making a significant improvement to their quality of life.

Quality of Life

For some seniors, doing things they once loved can be challenging. For those who love to travel, virtual reality can help them continue their explorations from the comfort of home.

Some companies offer seniors hundreds of experiences to enjoy, from exploring the icebergs in Antarctica to taking an African safari trip.

While these experiences sound fun for people of all ages, seniors may find them particularly beneficial. In part, this is because feelings of social isolation become more prevalent with age. As the eye ages, light intake decreases, making it harder to discern color. A decline in hearing may make daily conversations more challenging. Combined, these challenges can leave older adults feeling lonely, incapable and depressed.

Virtual reality gives seniors the chance to face these challenges head on, providing the interaction and mental stimulation they need. From increased mobility and cognitive function to boredom relief, seniors find virtual reality to be a fun and engaging way to continue traveling the world and enjoying life.


Virtual reality is helping seniors around the world live life to the fullest. Pain management, Alzheimer’s therapy and PTSD are at the forefront of VR’s focus for senior health and advances are being made daily to continue this form of healthcare.

For seniors living with memory loss, depression, PTSD and other health conditions, virtual reality could be the future of health care.

From helping seniors cope with symptoms of depression and anxiety to taking them out of their comfort zones and on exotic safari adventures, virtual reality shows great promise in the field of senior care.

Sources

Medium | NCBI | Verywell Health 1, 2 | NBC News | UCSF | PRN Funding | Next Avenue